Palin’s Populist Message

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Sarah Palin wants Americans to know they have a choice before them. “We are at a cross roads,” she said in a speech last night at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara marking Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. “Do we still believe the values that this country was founded on: God-given individual liberty, limited government and free market capitalism? Or do we surrender to big government and a corporatism agenda? Do we believe that we can compete and succeed by individual initiative? Or do we need government to take care of us and to plan for us?”

Palin was asked by the Young Americas Foundation, which hosted the event, to speak on Reagan’s address on behalf of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention. In the speech, often considered the birth of Reagan conservatism, Reagan warned of the stark choice before the American people where they could choose “the swamp” or “the stars.” Palin argued that Reagan represented a rejection of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Reagan “refused to sit down and be silent and let our civil liberties be eroded by an out of control centralized government that over taxed and over reached in utter disregard to constitutional limits,” she said, using a familiar turn of phrase. Palin told Fox News two weeks ago she refuses “sit down and shut up” in response to accusations that her heated rhetoric could have contributed to the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others.

Palin took the opportunity in Santa Barbara to deliver a resounding rejection of President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Like Reps. Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann who gave the GOP and Tea Party rebuttals the night of the speech, Palin focused on Obama’s culture of big government and “tax and spend policies — or rather now it’s borrow and spend and then tax the job creators,” as Palin put it. But she also expanded her refutation to include Obama’s energy policy. “We’re told green jobs, though, are the future and green jobs will save us and to prove this they point to Spain,” she said to laughter from the audience. “Or they used to point to Spain because their investing in Spain caused massive debt, unnecessarily skyrocketing energy costs and even more unemployment.”

Except to voice her continued support for the people of Israel, she largely avoided foreign policy and made no mention of the unrest in Egypt and across the Middle East.* Instead, she focused on issues popular with the Tea Party, which she lauded for rising up and declaring “enough is enough” in November. “Just days ago in that State of the Union address — less than 90 days after that freedom message was sent at the ballot box,” Palin said, “we were just told, ‘No the era of big government — it’s here to stay and you’re going to pay for it whether you want to or not.’”

Palin mourned the loss of Reagan, but said he cannot be replaced. “Today, there are a lot of people looking around looking for the next Ronald Reagan but he was one of a kind and you’re not going to find his kind again,” she said, adding that Reagan’s legacy is carried on in the Tea Party movement. “There isn’t one replacement for Reagan but there are millions who believe in the great ideas that he espoused there’s a whole army of patriotic Davids out there across this county ready to stand up and to speak out in defense of liberty. And these Davids aren’t afraid to tell Goliath: ‘Don’t tread on me.’”

Reagan, though, was “no Tea Partier,” Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer, told The Washington Post, adding that Reagan tripled the national debt and did not attempt to dismantle Social Security or one of the biggest achievements of Johnson’s Great Society: Medicare. Ron Reagan, the late president’s son, added scathingly that Palin has never been a credible presidential candidate. “Sarah Palin is a soap opera, basically. She’s doing mostly what she does to make money and keep her name in the news,” Reagan told the Associated Press.

Still, Palin outlined a populist message in the speech designed to appeal to voters. “The government created the problem, now government presents itself as a solution, trying to convince us the we can “Win the Future” by letting that little intellectual elite in a far distant capitol win it for us,” she said. “Today big business, big labor, big government, they have seats at the table. The little guy doesn’t but we’re the ones left holding the tab. We are paying the bill. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not the way it must be.” And in Palin’s parable Obama-the-Goliath is doomed to fall to her army of Davids.

Just as Reagan started with a simple speech and a simple idea — that the era of big government is over — his trajectory, Palin hinted, could be followed. “In 1964 the conservative movement heard him,” she noted. “In 1966 California listened to him. In 1976 finally the GOP rank and file listened to him. In 1980 the nation listened to him and, in 1984, the whole world heard him,” she said. “Recovery and renewal – it starts with all of us, the little guys, exceptional Americans.”

Even though she declined to give the keynote address at next week’s Conservative Politicial Action Conference – a usual haunt for GOP presidential hopefuls — with a speech like this, Palin would seem to be running for something. It remains to be seen whether it’s the Republican nomination to challenge Obama or Queen of the little guys and the Tea Party’s king maker. But the choice her speech boiled down to was between Obama and what Palin represents – and she seemed confident that she’s winning.

*Update: In an interview with CBN’s David Brody after the speech Palin said that Egypt was Obama’s “3am White House phone call” and “that call went right to the answering machine.” She also said he decision not to attend CPAC was simply a matter of timing and not in protest of the presence of a gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual group. The full interview will air Monday on the 700 Club.