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The Palin "Gaffe" That Wasn't

A common-sense statement reflects the rise of Tea Party conservatism at the expense of the Religious Right.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 3, 2010

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The Palin "Gaffe" That Wasn't

Last week on Judge Andrew Napolitano's tv show, Sarah Palin said,

"I'm not for the legalization of pot because that I think would just encourage, especially our young people, to think that it's okay to go ahead and use it . . . [but] I think we need to prioritize our law-enforcement efforts, and if somebody is going to smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else any harm then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking to engage in . . ."

This is a moderate thing to say, but would she have said it two years ago?

Her statement reflects the rise of the Tea Party movement's displacement of the Christian conservatism as the most influential force on the Right.

Ironically, Tea Party activists don't seem to have strong opinions about marijuana or the War on Drugs at all, as Kelley Beaucar Vlahos reports. But that's the point: Palin's remarks, which would have been controversial a few years ago in the socially conservative-dominated Republican Party, would be greeted with a shrug by Tea Party activists today.

Republican politicians (and Democratic politicians, too) would have, just a few years ago, kept repeating talking points about (1) the harmfulness of drugs, (2) the dangers drugs pose to our youth, and (3) the importance of equipping law enforcement with the tools it needs. Even if asked point-blank whether pot smokers who don't harm anybody should be arrested, they would dodge the direct question and repeat the talking points.

Palin's remarks would have been "politically incorrect." She would have committed a "gaffe" by telling the truth.

Today, nobody cares.

And that's because the Tea Party movement's agenda is economic, not social or moral. It views Big Government and Big Deficits as the nation's leading threats - not gay marriage, drugs, or radical Islam. As such, it is bound to be more pragmatic than ideological on other issues. More Tea Partiers would likely be open to the idea of legalization based on the facts that the War on Drugs a) is unconstitutional and b) is a Big Government program that has failed.

Palin didn't go that far, but she did imply that many marijuana arrests amount to government waste. In other words, the old talking points are going out of style.

Palin has, in effect, given her supporters and the candidates she has endorsed permission to talk common sense about drug policy, as opposed to the doctrinaire absolutism that has dominated politics for thirty years.

Palin's remarks were also politically astute. She knew her remarks would not be as controversial as they would have, say, during her 2008 campaign run for vice President. It also would have played well before the libertarian Napolitano's audience, as well as to the Ron Paul wing of the Tea Party movement; that wing calls for pushing social and moral issues to the state and local level and, most ideally, to the individual level. And, it plays into those conservatives who have had enough with Republican policies.

The problem with many Republican policies of the past thirty years is that they betrayed conservative principles of federalism and limited government - and deep down, conservatives knew it.

But their Republican Party started playing down to other, decidedly un-conservative constituencies who migrated from the Democratic Party - the fanatically militarist neoconservatives and a large number of evangelicals and Catholics. These elements, nakedly hostile to limited government (and even balanced budgets) held great sway in the Reagan administration - creating unnecessary tensions with a crumbling Soviet Union, supporting illegal anti-communist wars in Central America, escalating the War on Drugs, and even using tax dollars to investigate pornography.

Yet Republican politicians did just enough that true conservatives considered them a better option than Democrats or any other alternative. They even supported George W. Bush in 2000, even though he wanted to give tax money to religious charities  and expand the Department of Education. And they even re-elected Bush in 2004 despite Bush's abandonment of his promise to avoid nation-building.

Fear - particularly of real or perceived foreign threats - is the great conservative weakness. Unlike neocons and progressives, conservatives do not want to re-make the world into the one imagined by Washington think tanks. But they'll view anything and everything as a "threat" if the federal government says it is. That is why they supported various bombings and invasions over the years, and sent their children to die. Not because they care about making everyplace a democracy, but because they would do anything to protect "national security." Still remembering the 1991 Persian Gulf Cakewalk, they imagined war was quick and easy - or could be if fought the right way.

For the same reason, they have tolerated and even supported disastrous domestic policies such as the War on Drugs. They just wanted to protect their kids. They obliged with warrantless spying, airport humiliations, and the Patriot Act because they just wanted to be protected from terrorists.

But by 2006 and definitely 2008, many saw what conservative support for Republicans actually led to. They understood that the rise of Obama was the direct result of Republican misrule, and that Republicans misruled because they didn't govern like conservatives.

The Bailouts, followed by the Stimulus, pushed many conservatives over the edge. No longer wanting to call themselves Republicans, they started attending Tea Parties.

And I believe they are tired of the un-conservative rhetoric from neocons and the Religious Right. They don't equate National Security with endless war. Their priority is smaller government, not the Religious Right's desire to use the federal government to protect the "traditional family."

What the past ten years demonstrated is that none of the un-conservative stuff conservatives do actually works. As a libertarian, I probably would have supported a conservative party that supported smaller government, free markets, a strong defense, and federalism. But I couldn't support a party of exploding deficits, crony capitalism, endless war, and hypocrisy.

Sarah Palin's moderate stance toward marijuana is a signal that conservatives are no longer obliged to support stupid, unrealistic policies out of partisan loyalty. Like Ann Coulter's column against endless war, what Palin said was still half-wrong. Coulter wrongly defended the war in Iraq, but rightly criticizes the escalation in Afghanistan. Likewise, Palin is wrong to support marijuana prohibition, but is right to say that people who aren't harming anyone else shouldn't be arrested.

These are conservative statements, even if they've gone against the grain of Republican talking points of the past ten or thirty years.

It's an encouraging development. Perhaps real conservatives, in the Tea Party and elsewhere, will shake off the neocons and Religious Right and start embracing common sense once again.

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