Politics & Policy

The Right Role for Sarah Palin

In case she decides not to run for higher office.

When Sarah Palin resigned on July 4th weekend, it certainly looked as though she had decided to abandon politics, or at the very least given up on running for president in 2012. And despite the saturation coverage of Palin’s Going Rogue book tour, it’s not obvious that she hasn’t. As Republican political strategist Patrick Ruffini has observed, a Palin presidential run would have profited from releasing the book a year from now, maximizing media exposure in the crucial year before Iowa. Granted, John McCain also capitalized on his political celebrity to publish a series of well-timed soft-focus memoirs and personal reflections, but he did this while remaining in the U.S. Senate and playing a pivotal role in policy debates. Sarah Palin appears to be pursuing a different model. The former governor has said that she intends to play a role in the 2010 congressional elections, barnstorming across the country on behalf of small-government conservatives. As one of the most charismatic national Republicans, that makes a great deal of sense. But now might be the right time to think more broadly about the role Palin might play in reviving the Right.

#ad#One of the central reasons Palin has proven so polarizing a figure is that she is a pro-life working mother. Though there are tens of millions of pro-life working mothers in the United States, relatively few have occupied prominent roles in our politics. Debates over work-life balance and other issues that have been traditionally — and wrongly — understood as “women’s issues” have thus been dominated by women who identify with the Left. Bob McDonnell represents the dramatic transition among social conservatives on the role of women in the workplace. In the late 1980s, McDonnell’s master’s thesis suggested that mothers should be strongly discouraged from entering the workforce. But as McDonnell successfully established in the gubernatorial race, he has since embraced the idea that women, and men, can and should make a contribution both in the home and in the office. This is not an issue that has been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, and many conservatives, including Mary Eberstadt, will argue that McDonnell was right the first time around. The demographic reality that the American workforce is now as female as it is male, however, suggests that politicians will have to adjust to the new reality. Palin can play a crucial role.

It’s hard to think of a right-of-center woman who has as prominent a role in American public life as Phyllis Schlafly did at the height of her influence. If Palin decides not to run for higher office, it’s easy to imagine her becoming the country’s most forceful advocate of social conservatism. It’s a commonplace that in the Obama era, social issues have lost ground to economic issues among conservatives, and indeed Palin has placed heavier emphasis on health-care reform and stimulus spending than abortion. But this could represent an opportunity for a skilled political entrepreneur. Rather than just serve as a new messenger for a time-tested message, Palin could weave together social and economic strands by advancing family-friendly reforms to the tax code, like those championed by Ramesh Ponnuru, and programs like Social Security that arguably shortchange working women.

For Palin, this role might not prove as satisfying as running for president. But it is well-matched to her considerable strengths.

– Reihan Salam writes the Agenda blog for NRO and is the coauthor of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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