Sarah Palin’s speech Wednesday night was an opening salvo in what will be an autumn-long argument for a new brand of conservatism, consisting more of right-leaning instincts than an articulated political philosophy.
The conservatism of John McCain and Palin is an odd hybrid: part traditionalist and part anti-establishmentarian. Think of it as populism married to fiscal austerity. And it’s expressed with a reformist feistiness that is not ideological at all.
To convince the public that this approach is coherent and efficacious, rather than a dog’s breakfast, will take real skill both by Palin and by McCain. Whatever its merits, their hybrid is more difficult to understand than the three previous versions of conservatism at the presidential level.
Barry Goldwater’s conservatism basically said “leave us alone, or else. …” On the domestic front, its small-government beliefs were aimed as much against regulation as against spending. McCain-Palin, on the other hand, embraces new regulation in the name of reform.
Ronald Reagan added tax cuts and social issues to the conservative fold. But where Reagan said America could transcend its challenges, McCain seems to say we must outlast them.
George W. Bush was credited with the seemingly contradictory embrace of “big government conservatism.” But the public could at least understand that Bush wanted to use government in furtherance of conservative values. McCain-Palin rejects all government spending that doesn’t advance the national interest.
Perhaps McCain-Palin conservatism can be understood less by the brain than in the gut. It’s all about jousting against bad guys. To win the White House, McCain and Palin must persuade Americans that they’re the people’s champion.