Why Palin Matters to Obama—And to You

Richard Nixon sensed trouble. seated in the cow palace in San Francisco at the GOP convention in 1964, he listened as Barry Goldwater said: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty—is—no—vice." A 41-second ovation ensued. Then Goldwater continued: "And let me remind you also—that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." As Rick Perlstein reconstructs the scene in his book Before the Storm, Nixon reached over to keep his wife, Pat, from rising politely with the crowd. Later Dwight Eisenhower called the Goldwater speech an offense to "the whole American system." The crowds did not care: Goldwater was one of their own, riding in from Arizona to take the GOP from the Ikes and the Rockefellers.

Goldwater was a seminal figure, and is too often caricatured as a nuclear cowboy by the left and as a conservative John the Baptist by the right. But as Perlstein's reporting makes clear, Goldwater was seen in real time as an extremist, as the embodiment of unflinching conservative dogma. How unflinching? Well, it is striking that even Nixon wanted to distance himself from the nominee.

Now comes Sarah Palin, an heir to the Goldwater tradition, to try to harness the conservative discontent abroad in the land. Her political celebrity is so powerful that it has reduced a large part of the Republican Party to irrationality and civic incoherence. According to Gallup, Republicans are more likely to say they would seriously consider voting for Palin for president (65 percent) than to say she is qualified for the job (58 percent). At the moment she is promoting a book. But she is also, inevitably, promoting a distinctive political sensibility.

What Obama advisers privately refer to as "Palinism" has created a climate of ideological purity inside the GOP. To deviate from the anti-Obama line at all—that is, to acknowledge that politics is the art of compromise—risks the censure of the party. Pure ideologues will argue that this is a good thing; others like, say, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close friend of Palin's onetime champion John McCain, think differently. Graham was denounced last week by the Charleston County Republican Party for working with Democrats on issues such as climate change; the senator's office replied by invoking President Reagan's belief that "elected officials need to find common ground and work together to solve difficult problems."

As Evan Thomas argues in this week's cover, the Reagan style was one that might not have passed muster with Palin's adoring fans. Reagan realized that movement conservatives like him needed moderate conservatives to win and ultimately to govern. In 1976, in his challenge to President Ford, Reagan announced that he would run with Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a Rockefeller Republican. It never came to that, but four years later, in Detroit, Reagan seriously considered only two men for the ticket: Ford and George H.W. Bush, both men from the middle, not the far right, of the Republican Party. It is difficult to imagine the 2012 nominee choosing a more moderate running mate, not least because there are so few moderates left in the GOP. Even those of centrist inclinations are finding it virtually impossible to work with the administration for fear of a backlash from the base.

We have been to this movie before, when the unreconstructed liberals of the fading New Deal–Great Society coalition obstinately refused to acknowledge the reality that America is a center-right nation, and that Democrats who wish to win national elections cannot run on the left. We are at our best as a country when there is something approaching a moderate space in politics. The middle way is not always the right way—far from it. But sometimes it is, and a wise nation should cultivate a political spirit that allows opponents to cooperate without fearing an automatic execution from their core supporters. Who knew that the real rogues in American politics would be the ones who dare to get along?

This week's issue includes a package on the future of innovation, not only in America but globally. Anchored by a worldwide survey we conducted with Intel—NEWSWEEK Had editorial control over the questions—the pieces by Fareed Zakaria, Daniel Lyons, Dan Senor and Saul Singer, and Alan Brinkley explore the key economic unknown of the moment: what is the next big idea that will drive growth, and where will it come from? As you will see, a lot of people, including business leaders, think the future belongs to China. Globalization is not a zero-sum game, but we need to hone our skills to stay in play.