Sarah Palin: SoCon? Libertarian?

There seems to be broad though not unanimous agreement that Sarah Palin will eventually make a play for the White House. Dan McLaughlin lists her as a darling of the “culturally conservative” wing of the party for a possible run in four years. And certainly during the campaign, the MSM routinely defined her as appealing to the socially conservative wing of the party. Nor is there much doubt about her appeal there.

I want to suggest, however, that Palin’s potential appeal is much broader. On the day she was announced as Senator McCain’s running mate, I was in the car, and began getting excited phone calls from libertarian-oriented friends, thrilled with Palin’s selection. Flipping on the radio, I listened as Rush Limbaugh – who is not primarily a social conservative – was estatic. And I’ll admit, I was thrilled. Palin was the most libertarian candidate on a major party ticket since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Now, there are libertarians who disagree with this assessment, such as the talented young Ryan Sager, who saw the Palin pick as cementing the GOP as, “a southern-centered party based on social division and cultural resentment;” or Reason contributing editor Cathy Young, who sees in Governor Palin a “GOP in thrall to troglodytes.” But this is the careless language of the young. There are others, many others – I think a solid majority of libertarians, really – who agree that Palin’s libertarian critics are letting an immature hostility to all things religious, or a cosmopolitan animosity to Palin’s distinctly non-cosmopolitan aura, blind them to the type of Governor Palin has been. If you watch Palin’s debates from her Alaska political career, or her ads in the race for Governor, or look closely at her record at Governor, as Denver Post libertarian columnist David Harsanyi has, it becomes pretty clear that Palin has both campaigned and governed as a small government libertarian; secure on social issues but consciously not allowing them to define her campaign or her administration. Her campaigns, and her governance, focused on taxes, spending, market oriented health care change, market oriented environmental policy, and gun rights. It was a liberty agenda, including support for school choice and home schooling, less emphasis on the drug war, more talk of freedom. Indeed, her Vice Presidential run is interesting because it, too, was not dominated by the so-called “social issues,” but rather more focused on the general need to limit the size and scope of government.

In this, Palin represents, I think, the best tradition of Reagan – a blend of libertarianism and social conservatism that unites the wings of the GOP: the virtue and liberty candidate. Palin is a social conservative, but recognizes the limits of government power to enforce virtue. She is no intellectual, but she is smart and seems to have strong libertarian instincts.

In retrospect, it seems that Palin might have benefited from not being chosen by Senator McCain this year. She might have done better to have finished her term, won a landslide re-election, and introduced herself to the nation at her own pace and with her own message, not Senator McCain’s, which she carried loyally throughout the campaign. But she was certainly the most electrifying thing to hit GOP circles in this campaign. In any event, I hope that Governor Palin returns to Alaska, works hard, and gets that landslide re-elect that would force the scoffers to do something of a reappraisal. She is very young and has a great deal of time – she would be just 52 in eight years. Libertarians who have turned on Palin – mainly, it seems to me, from a visceral cultural reaction rather than a serious appraisal of the woman – should take another look. And conservatives such as Red State editor McLaughlin should also not be too quick to pigeon hole Palin. Palin certainly has the potential to appeal to the whole GOP coalition.

Libertarians and social conservatives need one another: both exist to resist the omnipotent state. As a result, they often don’t realize it, but their political destinies are inextricably linked. They cannot be enemies and hope to achieve their objectives.

Let’s hope Governor Palin plans her future carefully, continues to polish and improve her act, and returns to the national stage at the appropriate time.