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Palin's GOP Brand: Exclusionary and Short-Sighted, but Who Will Stop It?

4 years ago
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It's one thing when Sarah Palin "goes rogue" as a candidate campaigning for herself and her running mate. It's another thing entirely when she does it as the charismatic, free-lance leader of a grassroots army.

There's a direct line between Palin, the most famous Republican to endorse conservative third-party congressional candidate Doug Hoffman in Tuesday's special election in New York, and moderate Republican assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava's stunning decision Saturday to suspend her campaign.

Hoffman could well win, giving short-term succor to the GOP and Palin's exclusionary, storm-the-barricades brand of Republicanism. And who knows when and where this will stop -- or where it will lead? It has all the elements of a runaway train, and very few Republicans are willing to step in front of it.

Palin of course has every right to get involved in races and mobilize support for her picks. But the stampede among top Republicans to follow Palin's lead, or at least flee to the sidelines, has been embarrassing. To my thinking, the guy who came out looking best here was Newt Gingrich; I can't believe I just wrote that, but I'll explain later.

The lessons from the revolt in New York's Canada-hugging North Country may not be what they seem at first glance. It is true that Hoffman, the owner of a development company and managing partner of a large CPA firm, picked up so many endorsements and so much steam that Scozzafava was driven out. It is true that a handful of county chairs selected Scozzafava -- that's the system in New York for a special election.

But what really happened here? Did Palin and her allies correct a terrible mistake made by misguided local leaders? Did they play a vital catalytic role to make sure the people's voice is heard? Or did a local election get hijacked by ideologues with a national agenda?

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and often mentioned as a 2012 White House prospect, blamed locals for an "inside baseball, smoke-filled room" process that produced the wrong person. "They should've had a primary" and let the people choose, he said on CNN.

But that was not possible. You could even argue that those county party officials came as close as they could to a small-D democratic process by choosing a public official who had been elected by residents of the largest city in the congressional district.

The Watertown Daily Times, which on Sunday switched its endorsement from Scozzafava to Plattsburgh lawyer Bill Owens, the Democratic nominee, comes down on the side of hijacking. Forget the money and manpower that national conservatives have poured into the race, and consider this anecdote from managing editor Bob Gorman.

When Hoffman came to see the editorial board last month, he was accompanied by former House majority leader Dick Armey, now a prime fomenter of the tea-party protest movement against taxes and spending. When co-publisher John Johnson opened the meeting, the first person to speak was Armey, a Texan carrying his cowboy hat. Johnson told him "I'm not interested in hearing from you. I'm interested in hearing what Mr. Hoffman has to say," Gorman told me.

Things went from bad to worse as it became clear that Hoffman didn't know much about the sprawling 23rd congressional district, which is dominated by the dairy industry, Fort Drum and issues involving the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Armey tried to convince the board the election there was about national issues. You can get the full flavor here of Hoffman's non-answers and schedule of national interviews with Glenn Beck and others. Or check out his campaign Web site. The first few words on the home page make his priorities clear: "No more bailouts. No more taxes. No more trillion-dollar deficits. That's what I'm fighting for."

The Web site for Owens, by contrast, says he led redevelopment of Plattsburgh Air Force Base and will make "local job creation" his top priority. But Scozzafava had the deepest knowledge of the region and was the most accessible of the three. Unlike the others, Gorman said, she agreed to debates, made herself available for questions and gave her cell number to reporters so they could ask more.

And she did have some conservative credentials. She signed a no-tax-increase pledge and won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. But her support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage (in her view, consistent with the conservative tenet that the government shouldn't make decisions for people) sent Palin and her grassroots into a tailspin. Scozzafava's husband's job probably didn't help matters either: He's a labor organizer.

Palin announced her endorsement of Hoffman in a Facebook post that vowed "no more politics as usual." Once and future presidential possibles Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Steve Forbes also endorsed Hoffman (and to be fair, Thompson was first, well before Palin). Others lodged themselves firmly in neutral. By the end, Gingrich was practically alone in defending Scozzafava, local prerogatives and the idea of a capacious GOP tent with room for candidates who are not 100 percent conservative (but maybe are more viable where they're running as a result).

Despite the protestations of elected Republicans who say that they understand the diversity needed to win elections and majorities, and that this is an isolated case, you have to wonder what will happen to aspiring Republican moderates of the future -- or if there will even be any. Look at the price paid by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a pretty close match for Scozzafava's positions, in the 2008 presidential campaign. He skipped key contests in three conservative states and by the time he made his stand in Florida, it was too late.

Look at moderate Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate primary battle against an opponent with conservative movement backing, and look at the lengths Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter went to -- becoming a Democrat -- in order to avoid that kind of showdown.

And these are people with enormous stature and heft. How many non-politicians or obscure state legislators are going to step up after this, knowing that in mid-race their party may abandon them? How does this grow a party that's been contracting among minorities and in virtually every region but the South? How many contests does the Palin approach cede to Democrats, who have been happy to recruit moderates and conservatives in places they believe candidates like that can win?

Candidates like that have indeed won, and the complications posed by the Democrats' diversity are now playing out for all to see in the intra-party struggle over health reform. But you better believe it's a good problem to have. I'm pretty sure zero Democrats would prefer to be out of power and in perfect accord.

The Sarah Palin Blog calls the 23rd district race "a real test of political influence" and celebrates the verdict in its headline: "Sarah Palin Wins, Again." Events so far are, as the blog says, a vindication of Palin. Her party should brace for the deluge. Coming soon are the book ("Going Rogue"), the book tour and hundreds of 2010 contests. Don't expect Palin to sit them out.

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