I'm getting ready to make a belated entry in St. Paul, so I will be dark for most of tomorrow (as I have been for most of today tying up loose ends), but something about the Palin pregnancy controversy compels me to make a slightly provocative point that I also think aptly sums up the Republican identity in this week of GOP-centrism.
At its heart, the Republican Party is the party of regular people.
I don't mean this to come off as Average Joe chauvinism. This is not a point about income or wealth, though contrary to the stereotype of the GOP as the party of the rich, there is a strong argument to be made that we represent the Great American Middle in contrast to the Democrats' who represent the very rich/educated and the very poor/uneducated.
When I say regular, I mean regular in the sense of apolitical, well grounded in family and community, and as far away from a Beltway mindset as you can get.
Republican leaders at the national level have tended to tap into apolitical America more. Theirs are usually not the candidates who are scheming from birth to be President. They come to politics later in life after success in business, the military, or other worthwhile endeavors. If being a C-SPAN junkie were a prerequisite to being elected to Congress, we'd have veto-proof Democratic majorities in both chambers. If you upped that requirement to a Harvard degree, it'd be 80-20.
Nor would Democrats particularly dispute this. They claim the mantle of intellectual superiority as proof of their fitness to rule. They believe only those with the right "pedigree" should be elected President.
All of this brings me to Sarah Palin.
Palin as #2 represents the triumph of Apolitical America in Presidential politics in extremis. Elitists on both sides are asking "Who is this woman?" To them, Palin is the ultimate arriviste, having leapfrogged several more-pedigreed candidates on the Republican side, and offending the Democratic sensibility that the Presidency is something you arrive at mostly through long study in Senate hearing rooms and law libraries.
This is why I ultimately think the attacks on Palin will backfire. As the Politico notes, everything about her life experience reinforces the narrative that she is not an all-consumming political animal, and has an active family life. That is not a bad place to be with the electorate.
For Republicans, there is no contradiction between being an average American with a family, and being a gifted leader. And though Presidents typically exhibit some early ambition, it is usually less prevalent in Republicans than Democrats. Let's look at the history of the last few Presidential nominations:
- John McCain -- probably the most explicitly ambitious of our recent nominees -- was first elected to public office at 46 after a career in the military.
- George W. Bush, part of one of the great political families, but "drifted" until later in life; first elected to public office at age 48 after a career in the oil industry
- Bob Dole, the only career politician among recent nominees, was first elected to the Kansas state house at age 27
- George H.W. Bush -- successful businessman before winning election to Congress at age 42.
- Ronald Reagan -- successful actor before winning his first public office at age 55.
Now look at the Democrats:
- Barack Obama, elected to the Illinois State Senate at age 35, his political ambitions probably date from college
- John Kerry, sailed with Kennedy, ran for Congress at 27, and first elected at 37.
- Al Gore, son of a famous Senator, elected to Congress at 28.
- Bill Clinton, ran for Congress at 28, first elected to public office at 30
- Mike Dukakis, first elected at 29.
- Walter Mondale, campaign manager for Hubert Humphrey at 20, appointed to fill a vacancy at 32.
- Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer, was first elected to the Georgia State Senate at 38. He is probably the last truly normal person the Democrats have nominated.
The contrast between the life experience of our Republican and Democratic political icons is pretty stark. Democrats got their start in politics an average of a decade earlier than the Republicans, winning their first elective office at 33 vs. 44 for the GOP. Most of the Republicans on the list had significant experience in the private sector before entering politics, versus just one Democrat -- Jimmy Carter. Another, John McCain, had a full career in the military. In fact, four of five GOP Presidential nominees since 1980 have spent 10 or more years outside of elective office or academia, versus six of seven Democrats who haven't.
Whose party can you relate to better?