The GOP's Palin Problem

John McCain's defeat will be a lonely one. The old soldier has always taken pride in proving no one owns him—not his party, not its leaders and, for damn sure, not the ideological purity police of the right. So if the polls prove right, and McCain loses to Barack Obama next Tuesday, no one but him will own his defeat. Already, from every corner of the conservative coalition, the same refrain is rising: nasty, obstinate old fool, he should have listened to me.

Will Sarah Palin join that chorus? The answer, if Palin has big ambitions (and every piece of her life story suggests she does), is almost certainly yes. Even now she is dropping hints of unhappiness with her running mate's way of doing things—saying, if she had her way, the McCain campaign would skip the robo-calls, go after Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and continue to pour resources into Michigan. It's easy to imagine her amped-up post-election critique: they dressed me in their fancy clothes, they fed me to their elite media friends, they even made me bow and scrape to "Saturday Night Live," but they still couldn't change me. I'm still Sarah from Wasilla and I'm ready to take Real America back.

Democrats, having witnessed Palin's wobbly 2008 performance (31 percent of registered voters in the new NEWSWEEK poll say Palin makes them less likely to vote for McCain), will no doubt relish the prospect of Palin lingering on the national stage. They should be careful what they wish for. For all her problems now, Palin has the biography, the ideological sympathies and the charisma to be what the Republican Party lacks: a populist, far-right politician with intense celebrity appeal.

This has less to do with Palin than with the one group most essential to the Republican Party's long-term survival: America's white working class. In brighter days, Karl Rove and his disciples dreamed of a conservative majority that cut deep into traditional Democratic demographic groups like Hispanics and culturally conservative African-Americans. Those fantasy targets are gone. African-Americans will almost certainly remain solidly Democratic in the Obama era, as will Hispanics given the realities of immigration politics in the GOP. A public fight concerning Roe v. Wade (an Obama first term might see three Supreme Court vacancies) will preclude major GOP gains with affluent coastal moderates. The one remaining target is low-education white voters, Reagan Democrats, the last group to join Obama's coalition, and thus the first group Republicans should try to snatch away.

How would they do that? For several years, conservative intellectuals have argued that, to survive, the party needs to adapt its economic message to address the insecurities of the culturally conservative working class. This populist GOP, they argue, would offer more than just the pro-life, anti-tax party. It would offer a vision of how limited government can promote strong families and grow the middle class. The intelligentsia look at Republican governors such as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty—thoughtful conservatives who have a touch with the common man—and see reasons for hope.

But what the intellectuals have not always acknowledged is that there is an easier, if less utopian, way to speak to the anxieties of working America: full-fledged culture war. There are, in fact, wedge issues the Republican Party has yet to fully exploit. Rather than expose the divide between McCain and the base of his party on immigration (the nominee takes a moderate stance; party activists are filled with close-the-border zeal), the Republicans have taken the issue off the table in 2008. But any politician who thinks millions of middle- and working-class white Americans have stopped caring about it is delusional. It is only a matter of time before a candidate with A-list name recognition decides to make it a pet issue.

Why not Palin? Unlike most top-tier Republican candidates, she owes very little to the party's business wing and thus would have little to lose by taking an anti-immigration stand. Since joining McCain's ticket, she has echoed his moderate position on the issue. But she could turn this into a virtue: yet another McCain mistake she had to grin and bear. She could use the issue as a jumping-off point to break the party from business altogether on things like trade, making a protectionist argument from the right. The inexperience that has dogged her this year could help her in the future; without a record of party fealty, she could easily dispose of any party orthodoxy that kept her from marrying pitchfork populism with the ideals of the Christian right.

No telegenic Republican has tried this since Pat Buchanan in the 1990s. No superstar Republican has tried it in history. In Palin's hands, this strategy could spawn a movement. In the event of a Republican embarrassment on Election Day, the real story won't be John McCain licking the wounds from his lonely defeat. It may be Sarah Palin reinventing the Republican Party—not from the middle, but from the right.