There she goes again. Sarah Palin—once a conservative icon and still widely esteemed by the grassroots—has endorsed a man who stood with President Obama against the Tea Party.
Some of the gents over at National Review are understandably incensed, though many saw it coming. Since resigning the governorship in Alaska, Palin has become the celebrity that she once opposed, not the conservative we all hoped she’d be.
One of the columns at NR virtually writes the Tea Party’s obituary and produces an extensive list of the causes of death: the lack of leadership, horrendous candidates, a lack of philosophical principle, etc. I am a bit wary of such proclamations—an original NR icon, Russell Kirk, loved to quote T.S. Eliot’s phrase about no cause being fully gained nor fully lost.
To hedge against the rising tide of conservative cynicism, I think it worth noting that the GOP is any many ways more conservative than ever before. Glenn Beck alone propelled Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” to No. 1 on The New York Times’s bestseller’s list a few years back. The one Rockefeller Republican who dared run for the 2016 mantle, George Pataki, never cracked 1 percent.
A Bad Day for Conservatives
That said, Palin’s endorsement of Trump (and it sounds like Jerry Falwell Jr. will follow suit) confirms what many conservative pundits and political scientists have been highlighting the past several weeks: The GOP grassroots are not nearly as conservative as was thought. They, like Palin, were sick of big government on an instinctual level, not a philosophical one.
This was a bad day for Ted Cruz. He got hit hard when the popular Republican governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, said he supported anyone but Cruz. Now Palin has given Tea Partiers and evangelicals the cover they need to support a heterodox Trump. To top it all off, Cruz was campaigning in New Hampshire today because he was confident of his standing in Iowa.
The other conservatives, fighting for the establishment mantle, will not profit from this event either. A poll came out today showing John Kasich jumping out to a strong second place in New Hampshire at 20 percent, and polls across the country are showing Jeb Bush improving his hand. Marco Rubio’s pathway in the establishment lane is now more contested.
This strengthened Trump’s position, and there seems to be little question now that he will be one of the last candidates standing.
Time to Go After Trump
In my mind, apart from the field winnowing down soon, there are two clear ways to go after Trump. First, the rest of the GOP candidates need to take the gloves off with Trump. Unlike Kasich, they should not be hitting him from the Left. They need to develop a principled position on the Right and show the American people that he resembles Hillary Clinton much more than he resembles Ronald Reagan.
Second, the perceived leaders of movement conservatives—Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin—need to remember that they not only represent the movement to conservatives, but represent conservatism to the movement. The conservative elites have long stood athwart Trump. Now the populist mouthpieces need to do the same and show Trump is not one of them.
The final question in my mind: If these things take place, will it be enough? Will these figures be able to convince the grassroots that rash love makes people blind to clear defects? Or will “We the people” decide with Palin to choose the glitter of celebrity over the glue of a constitutional conservatism?
Only time will tell. And time—at least for 2016—seems to be running out.