One of the more annoying memes to arrive in this political season is the narrative that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are effectively interchangeable. This notion is based on the identity politics of the Democrat Party, and has no business and no proper role in the Republican party, or in the larger conservative movement, where it seems, in some quarters to have taken root. Identity politics concerns itself primarily with the race, sex, and other personal attributes, breaking us up into groups. This theory cynically implies the belief that a woman will get best representation from a woman, and an African-American will get best representation from another African-American, and that our entire political structure can be dominated by groupings based on identity of both voters and candidates. This atavistic tribalism serves no American well, because it seeks most of all to divide and conquer.
Consider the current group of Republican candidates, both announced and speculative. Among them, you will find a black man, a number of white men, and two women. Notice that in this description, I have de-individualized them all, because by identifying them by their various group attributes, I’ve neglected the vast differences among individuals. Who among us really believes that Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul are interchangeable? Who among us thinks Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are just two differing manifestations of the same characteristics? Examined this way, it is a preposterous conclusion to draw, yet this is the sort of fallacy to which identity politics leads. The Republican Party has traditionally rejected this sort of false equivalency in its candidate selection. When I recently read, but not for the first time, that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann were essentially ‘interchangeable’, I was livid. This malignant form of identity politics must be excised from our body politic. It has no place in conservative thinking. I then made a more shocking discovery: I had begun to fall for it, too. In the name of restoring individualism, let us then examine these two very capable candidates, not on the basis of their similarities, and not on the basis of their various group attributes, but on the basis of something far more important: Their individual characters, their individual accomplishments, their individual records, and their unique individual virtues for the job that is the Presidency.
Michele Bachmann has an accomplished record as a small-government conservative, and while her history in politics is relatively short, entering elective politics in 2000, it’s no less lengthy than Barack Obama’s when he initiated his run for the Presidency. It would be fair to say that in some ways, her political career mirrors his, with the noted exception that she has not been in the habit of voting ‘present.’ She ran for a state legislative position, and then moved up almost immediately to the federal level. Contrast this with Sarah Palin, who began at the lowest levels of local politics, and who in subsequent elections moved from the City Council of Wasilla, Alaska, and eventually all the way up to the governorship. Along the way, she served two terms as the Mayor of Wasilla, and as a commissioner on the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. This is a substantially different path from Bachmann’s, because it starts out in the basement of local politics and arrives as the Governor’s office of Alaska, a statewide office. In politics, it is not all so difficult to win an office from a particular district made up of people with similar concerns, but it is much more difficult to win a state-wide election or national office because there are so many competing interests. More, with the extraordinarily powerful oil industry in the state of Alaska, Palin was able to overcome a money deficit and win anyway. For those who argue that money equates to electoral victory, this may serve to demonstrate the proposition that she has a powerful interaction with voters that trumps the normal influence of big money.
Both ladies are TEA Party patriots, active in that grass-roots movement. Both candidates show consistent support for reducing the size of government, limiting taxes, and defending our nation against current and would-be aggressors. In 2010, however, while Bachmann focused on earning re-election in a competitive district at home in Minnesota, Sarah Palin, not then serving in any elective office, toured the country supporting TEA Party candidates, and helped usher in a new wave of conservatives into the House of Representatives. This was particular notable in Florida, a perennial battleground state, and this has raised some eyebrows at the Whitehouse. The Republican leadership had shown no particular vision, and Sarah Palin lead them to rally for victory. Marco Rubio, a strong conservative from Florida, overcame strong opponents riding this wave of grass-roots activism. Allen West, in his second attempt to secure a House seat, also in Florida, won in a stunning rebuke to the big-spenders in DC. Mrs. Palin helped to energize the Republican base, and the TEA Party, to get out and support these promising new conservative candidates. While their efforts have been tireless, they are vastly outnumbered in DC by the Democrats and establishment Republican types, and the Republican leadership in DC has been sorely unprepared to lead. With a strong leader of a similar mindset in place, perhaps the outcome would be different and we would see the 2010 elections begin to bear more fruit.
Both women are advocates of reducing the scale and reach of government through effective trimming of the budget, but only one of these two has actually done it. At present, there is a great deal of support, generally, for cutting wasteful federal spending, but this is under the duress of a budget crisis and debt crisis from which Congress and the President cannot easily avert their attentions. In this environment, Bachmann has been a strong proponent of cutting spending and reforming what remains in order to control federal spending. Contrast this against Palin’s service as governor, in which she actually eliminated wasteful spending in time of surplus. This is a much more difficult chore, because every advocate will point out to the besieged politician that the money is there. “We have it! Let’s spend it!” This tendency of government to spend as much money as it has, right down to the penny, is corrosive. For a politician to actually impose fiscal discipline, not merely in bad times that demand it, but also in good times, is something of a novelty in American politics. This distinction makes Sarah Palin the clear champion of responsible government, in bad times, but also in good times.
Some people like to point out Bachmann’s education and experience as a tax attorney, while Palin’s education is in communications. While it is true that on the surface, Representative Bachmann’s educational credentials seem more substantial, there is something worth noting about the nature of that education: To be a tax attorney is to be a professional in an arena created and propagated by big government. If our tax system was not so thoroughly corrupted and complex by design, what good would Mrs. Bachmann’s education be? If the United States were to radically reform it system of taxation, what value would her degree then hold? In point of fact, Bachmann’s degree exists to serve the established paradigm in Washington, DC. By contrast, Sarah Palin’s degree is in communications. In leading the nation, will it be more critical that a President be skilled in the minutiae of the tax code, or more able to leverage the evolving media of our time to effectively lead and rally the country? Ronald Reagan, likewise, was a great communicator, spent most of his professional career in media. Whatever you may think of the office of the President of the United States, its occupant must be a clever communicator not overly-reliant on teleprompters, as we’ve seen recently. In this light, Sarah Palin’s ability to make extemporaneous speeches without extensive preparation better prepares her to lead a nation of individuals fatigued to exhaustion with politicians who merely speak past them, but rarely to them.
Some Republicans consider Sarah Palin ‘damaged goods.’ She’s been attacked viciously, relentlessly, and scurrilously ever since she was announced as John McCain’s running mate. Even when she’s right, the media finds some way to spin it into a negative. Michele Bachmann is now becoming acquainted with the anger, the vitriol, and the caustic tendencies of the political press, and she too is coming under disgusting attacks. This is a problem with which any conservative will ultimately be confronted, but I think it’s time to consider how well Palin has held up under these unceasing attacks. Even now, as an undeclared, prospective candidate, on a bus tour of historical sites, she was pursued with wild-eyed abandon by the media, who complained that they had been turned into a sort of paparazzi, failing to notice who it had been volunteering for the job, as they raced through traffic in pursuit of a bus. Another aspect of this question is what Mrs. Palin’s daughter addressed on Fox & Friends, recently: If you’re going to be attacked, relentlessly, you might just as well run with it. The corollary is that if the media has dug up everything they could imagine, and fabricate things when nothing was discovered in the excavations, you can bet that there will be no last-minute revelations in the run-up to an election: There’s nothing left. The media has already done all it can do, and from here on, it will be merely fabrications and loosely phrased innuendo to which they will turn. There are no skeletons remaining in her closet. The media has turned her closet inside-out and come up empty. We do not know what may yet be revealed about Mrs. Bachmann, but knowing the tactics employed by the media, you can bet that every possible stone will be overturned in search of any nugget with which to assail her, and if there is anything untoward, even slightly, it will be revealed the last week before a general election. It’s how the media operates. In this respect, Sarah Palin is a known quantity. The ‘damaged goods’ thesis falls flat, because in truth, she is only as damaged as we decide she has been, and based on the AP’s own polling results, no Republican has higher favorability among Republicans than Sarah Palin.
This brings us to the mechanics of electability. Many people, Barack Obama most of all, hope to see Sarah Palin derailed early, or to dissuade her from running at all. The reason is clear: Cut away all the media-produced hype and nonsense, and it is clear that Sarah Palin is the most genuine, earnest among all the candidates under discussion. This fact has not escaped the notice of the Obama administration. She has something nobody excepting only the President has, and in fact, for a non-President, has more than most any other figure in the public eye, a thing that is more precious than money in electoral politics: Name recognition at ninety-six percent. Michele Bachmann is still way down the scale in this measure, and it is doubtful she will do much to improve that among the general electorate before the Republican Convention in 2012. She may improve her name recognition somewhat among Republicans and the political class in DC, but she won’t make much ground among independents unless she’s nominated. By then, it may be too large a deficit to overcome.
In examining the lives of these two women, one difference becomes rather apparent: Mrs. Bachmann is of fine conservative credential, and is somewhat more palatable to the DC establishment, because she is a product of the world they’ve built, whereas Palin is an entirely different sort of person, inasmuch as she doesn’t fit the ready-made templates and because she’s lived her life as most Americans prefer: She is not a byproduct of the leviathan in DC, but instead a direct challenger to it. She’s everything good and precious about that which has made America unique and uniquely a place in which people and their lives needn’t be dominated by a distant capital, where decisions are made about the lives of every American without reference to their own desires, demands, or dreams. She’s the product of a wild place, and the fight to bring civilization to it. She’s sliced her own way forward, not waiting on others to set the stage or clear a path. She’s been an agent of change, but not the sort that litters campaign literature. She represents a real and abiding change that will genuinely challenge the status quo ante in Washington DC. Every candidate promises change, but damnably few deliver, and while it is true to say that Bachmann and Palin are conservative candidates, it’s also clear that only one represents the sort of deep-seated change, not just in policy, but in thinking, that this country sorely needs in this time of economic crisis and widespread global uncertainty.
If one of these two candidates represents what it is that America most needs, it must be Governor Palin, for in and amongst all the excess media coverage, they’ve somehow ignored her one uniquely enduring quality: She seeks to restore America’s vital foundation in an evolving world, not to survive another budget cycle or another decade, but to foster its continuing leadership in a world full of imminent and looming challenges. In short, she believes not merely in the America that was, but also in the America that must be, lest we fall upon the ash-heap of history. She encapsulates in a single living person, all that is good about our country, and knows that for the sake of our national survival, change must not be mere tinkering with the laws, but the wholesale revision and repeal of those obnoxious to liberty. We stand upon a precipice, and if we go but another step or two forward, no future American success stories will be possible. She’s fighting for that.
Michele Bachmann is a very nice lady. She’s a serious legislator and an important voice for conservatism. What she isn’t, however, is a candidate who can bring to Washington the sort of thorough restoration of our founding principles while bearing the real fruit of a living law that must change to the times but never abandon those ideals. What Sarah Palin brings to the argument is a new perspective, formulated at a distance, with a critical eye for the details, but more importantly, for the broad conceptual crisis of character America, and Americans, now face. Sarah Palin is the real outsider in this race, and Obama and the Democrat party, as well as their numerous shills in the media know it. The Republican establishment knows it, too, and they are as committed as any Democrat to seeing her banished from the beltway. Bachmann is a conservative the establishment tolerates. One might wonder why, but it is nevertheless true that for all her conservative strengths, she is still one of them-one of the Party’s approved candidates. In her position in Congress, she has no effective choice but to bend to the party leadership in a pinch. They can do her far too much damage if she doesn’t ‘play the game.’
In stark contrast, Palin knows that to restore the country, battling the DC Republican establishment is not a last bit of house-cleaning to be undertaken at some undetermined future date, but must be the battle engaged from the outset, as a prerequisite to restoring the country at large. This vast gulf in the political orientations of the two women, with respect to their party, but also with respect to the the governance of the nation, demonstrates why the notion of interchangeability is a dangerous fallacy. Because they are both women, and both are Christian conservative Republicans, the similarities alone do not make for simple substitution. The whole story lies in how the two are very different, and this holds the key to understanding why Sarah Palin offers to Americans the precious qualities that no other candidates or prospects possess. In 2012, the country needs that which is indispensably Palin.