Do not mistake conservatism for competence

Today, a post on an important topic for the future of the GOP.

That is the current tendency of some among the conservative base to see conservatism as a substitute for competence. It is not. Or passion as a substitute for pragmatism and professionalism. Again, not the same. All of these are good things. Yet they are not the identical or interchangeable, and ought never be confused as such.

top-bannerOver and over, I see people make the case for Sarah Palin because she is a “conservative” leader. A “visionary” even, as Claude Sandroff ridiculously asserted in the American Thinker today. These same energetic advocates either shrug off her demonstrated weaknesses or worse, deny them or ignore their relevance completely. This is not only illogical, but suicidal politically.

There is nothing wrong with Sarah Palin’s conservatism – as far as it actually serves as the basis of her intellectual formation. The only problem is, if you don’t actually have much of an intellectual formation, how conservative could you actually be? That is to say, Palin has never distinguished herself as a serious thinker on major policy issues. Facebook notes don’t count. Anybody could’ve written those. So why are people so jazzed about her?

She’s hot, yes. Absolutely. And that helps, as it should. An appealing image is always going to be a plus in winning the public. She’s got a nice life story. A winsome young Sarah married her high school sweetheart, and from nearly every appearance has been an active, loving parent. She’s tough, too, as all the while she was rising to the top of state politics, a tough and tricky business no matter where you are. And she’s conservative – again, as far as you can say she actually has a substantial and coherent political worldview.

All of these things are great. As I must repeat in every Sarah Palin post – I like Sarah Palin. Nothing against her whatsoever. She is an impressive and dynamic woman, and probably even a good soul. Undoubtedly she has been unfairly maligned by some.

However, it is painfully obvious to any reasonable and honest observer that she was not ready for the national stage in 2008. Not ready to lead a movement, not ready to lead a nation (not that the current occupant is). She was dynamic and inspired, but not in the way that mattered most: as an assertive and authoritative voice on a range of serious foreign and domestic policy issues.

There’s no doubt that on the issues she’s interested in and takes positions on, she’s genuine and emphatic in those positions. The GOP needs that kind of principled authenticity. However, we also need somebody who beyond merely personifying traditionalist political impulses, presents grounded and nuanced understandings and arguments for the broader conservative agenda.

For its potential symbol and spokesperson to evoke little more than gut level cultural conservatism on a narrow range of issues, yet lack competence in discussing and dealing with issues on the broader national agenda, invites the supposition that conservatism is not a serious intellectual possibility as a set of governing principles, but little more than simplistic rightish populism to be offered up as red meat for rowdy red-staters.

I worked for the McCain-Palin ticket for a time, yet I do not say this as any kind of McCain moderate. After the primary had been decided, I went to work as a local field director because the choice between McCain and Obama for me was obvious and compelling.

It is precisely because I believe that the timeless ideals of conservatism can guarantee strength and prosperity for this nation for years to come that I advocate identifying and recruiting, if necessary, a candidate who is not only conservative, but whose competence matches his or her charisma. Right now, Sarah Palin is not that candidate.

Post Script 2: Rarely, I think, have I used harsh descriptions to describe the personal work of a fellow conservative commentator. I take little pleasure in doing so in regards to Sandroff’s column. I say little, because there is always some pleasure in defining something accurately. Any assessment of the philosophical contribution to the conservative movement and practical contribution to the Republican Party which describes Newt Gingrich as a “hack” in contrast to Sarah Palin, “visionary,” is not only ridiculous but absurd, obscene, and patently offensive.

Post Script 3: On Friday, Dr. Catherine Rymph of the University of Missouri delivered a lecture on the topic of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party. Rymph is a feminist historian so I anticipated a relatively hostile treatment of the subject, but nonetheless she did offer some interesting points of analysis which I hope to discuss on Principally Political this week.

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Filed under 2012 Presidential Election, Conservative Movement, Republican Party

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