New York Times (Opinion)
By Nicole Wallace
January 25, 2016
DONALD J. TRUMP has made a shrewd bet. For the first time since he descended an escalator in Trump Tower last June to announce that this time, he really was running for president, he ceded control of his campaign message. He handed the Trump-bedecked podium over to Sarah Palin.
Mr. Trump’s bet: When the politician most fluent in American rage roars, the movement she gave voice to in the fall of 2008 will roar back today.
With his call to deport illegal immigrants, especially because Mexico sends us its “bad ones,” his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country, his emphasis on the threats to lawful gun ownership and his promise to protect American goods and workers from China, Mr. Trump is riding the wave of anxiety that Ms. Palin first gave voice to as Senator John McCain’s running mate. Mr. Trump has now usurped and vastly expanded upon Ms. Palin’s constituency, but the connection between the two movements is undeniable.
As a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008, I understand why, to this day, Senator McCain remains gracious toward Ms. Palin. Despite her shortcomings, she brought out the largest crowds that we’d seen since the campaign started. Voters stood for hours on the rope line to meet her. Her legacy lies in her innate ability to wrap herself in the anger that those voters felt. While Senator McCain seemed slightly unnerved by the intensity of their discontent, Ms. Palin basked in it.
I stood backstage at a rally in Minnesota in October 2008 where Senator McCain took the microphone from a woman in the crowd who spoke about her fears, including that Barack Obama was “an Arab.” Senator McCain said, “No, ma’am,” and explained that Mr. Obama was a good and decent family man and an American with whom he simply disagreed on policy matters. This interaction will go down as one of the finest moments from one of the country’s finest men. But it was also an early warning that the Republican base was profoundly agitated.
To some in the news media, voter anger seems like a new phenomenon. But they attended the same Palin rallies I did — we all should have seen this coming. The Alaska governor whipped the crowds into a frenzy with her fiery attacks on the media and the establishment politicians that she had gleefully upended in the Alaska statehouse. When her rallygoers shouted crude comments from the stands, as the woman at the Minnesota rally had done, there was no confrontation between Ms. Palin and the offender. When the press started to report on the angry rhetoric coming from those Palin crowds, I remember Senator McCain’s concern. The growing furor in the Republican Party was something that we, as a campaign, failed to address, but to the crowds, Sarah Palin proved the more satisfying politician on the ticket because of it.
Ms. Palin owned the resentment voters in the Republican Party. They became her cause. And when the campaign concluded, she became the poster politician for the Tea Party movement. She was its first star, and hers became a coveted endorsement. Ms. Palin typically picks candidates who are trying to unseat incumbents and more experienced politicians, an ironic development considering that she was selected as a running mate to reinforce Mr. McCain’s brand as a “maverick” — but a maverick who worked within the Senate and the Republican Party.
She has now turned the institutions in which he has proudly served into liabilities for the candidates running against her mama-grizzly-approved outsiders. The party bears some responsibility for her success. Our base has grown increasingly exasperated with Washington Republicans who, despite historic victories in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, seem incapable of reversing President Obama’s legislative agenda or asserting themselves in the country’s foreign policy debates.
Ms. Palin has amassed a decent record of success by endorsing conservative stars like Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa and Ted Cruz, of Texas, in his Senate bid. But no endorsement returned her to the spotlight like this embrace of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump improves upon Ms. Palin’s jagged attempts at a post-2008 message with a vision for reclaiming American greatness by promising better trade deals, improved care for veterans, a more successful foreign policy based on his personal strength and immigration reform that is based mostly on building a wall. His proposals are, at best, vague and of questionable legal soundness, but they’ve propelled his candidacy by inflaming voter concern that America has lost ground.
That he would refine and recalibrate his proclamations in a general election or as president is a widely held assumption among the Republican establishment. It’s possible that this is the kind of false comfort that people on a sinking ship murmur to one another about how death by drowning really isn’t a bad way to go.
We’ll never know if Sarah Palin would have taken her turn atop the polls at any point during this year’s Republican primary if she’d decided to run. Her inclusion may be the only thing that could have made it more extraordinary. During Ms. Palin’s 37-minute score settling-slash-endorsement address last week, Mr. Trump seemed, at times, uncomfortable and eager for her to wrap things up. Should he come out on top in Iowa, he has her to thank.
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