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Feb. 7, 2011
/ 3 Adar I, 5771
Invoking Reagan, Palin says this is a time for choosing again
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - Sarah Palin came here to declare that President Ronald Reagan "was one of a kind, and you're not going to find his kind again." But in a carefully-crafted speech marking Reagan's 100th birthday, the former Alaska governor drew a series of parallels -- some explicit, some implied -- between Reagan and herself, and between Reagan's time and today.
Palin was invited to speak by the Young America's Foundation, which owns and maintains Reagan's old ranch in the mountains near Santa Barbara. (The foundation is separate, and more aligned with the conservative movement, than the Reagan Presidential Library, which is also holding commemorative events this weekend.) Palin began her remarks by telling the crowd, made up largely of foundation donors, about her visit to the ranch on Friday.
"The ranch is unmistakably the home of a western conservative," Palin said. "As an Alaskan, I proudly consider myself a western conservative in the spirit of Ronald Reagan." From that starting point -- and her note that she grew up with "the values Ronald Reagan embodied" -- Palin discussed themes from Reagan's life that have unmistakable resonance for conservatives, and especially for Palin supporters, today.
Reagan was initially rejected by the establishment of the Republican Party, Palin said. He stood up against the big government of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. He delivered a hard-edged message that American voters at first rejected. And ultimately he prevailed.
Palin's specific subject was Reagan's speech "A Time for Choosing," made on behalf of Barry Goldwater just days before the 1964 presidential election. "A Time for Choosing" -- delivered 16 years before Reagan's own successful run for the White House -- made Reagan a star in the Republican Party.
It was also, Palin noted, a tough-minded, aggressively delivered message in which Reagan described a stark choice between a government headed toward socialism and one dedicated to freedom. The speech "gave birth to the Reagan revolution," Palin said, and was "a call to action against a fundamental threat to freedom."
Palin focused particularly on a passage of Reagan's speech in which he said the issue of the 1964 election was "whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves." To conservatives, and especially to the Tea Partiers who make up a significant portion of Palin's supporters, it's a message that seems as fresh today as when it was delivered. Palin quoted it twice -- she said big-government advocates believe "we can win the future by letting that little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol win it for us" -- and alluded to it on a number of other occasions.
In the 1960s, Palin said, Reagan was taking a stand against a president who was expanding the reach of government with expensive new social programs. "Reagan saw the dangers in LBJ's Great Society," Palin told the crowd. "He refused to sit down and be silent as our liberties were eroded by an out-of-control centralized government that overtaxed and overreached in utter disregard of constitutional limits." No one in the room missed the parallels between Johnson's time and the Obama administration of today.
But back in 1964, Palin said, "the country wasn't quite ready to hear" Reagan's words. (Goldwater lost in a historic landslide.) Reagan did not give up, and because he kept trying, "his message did catch on slowly."
"In 1964, the conservative movement heard him," Palin said. "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. So by the time he left office, Ronald Reagan had effectively defeated the expansionist ideology of the Great Society."
It's a stirring story, Palin told the crowd, but now big-government ideology is back. Reagan was outraged by the 1960s, while "for many of us today, that moment of outrage came with the passage of Obamacare." Then there was the stimulus, which "didn't stimulate anything but a Tea Party." And now, Barack Obama's calls for new "investments" will end with "a bullet train to bankruptcy."
"This is a time for choosing again," Palin said, "and the vision we outline here is just as stark as it was in 1964."
A Palin insider says the former governor watched "A Time for Choosing" several times and was struck by Reagan's stern tone, as well as the applicability of his themes to today's events. Then, as she was working on the speech, Palin watched President Obama's state of the union and become convinced that, rather than adopt a more centrist path, Obama planned to continue pushing big-government programs. Those two thoughts, the insider says, formed the core of Palin's speech.
How was it received? Palin spoke in a fairly small room, with perhaps 200 in the audience -- the Reagan Ranch Center is not a big-money operation and doesn't have a grand ballroom. In general, audience members were enthusiastic about Palin's message but guarded about her political prospects.
"I like her enthusiasm and ability energize people," said one woman.
"Would you support her for president?"
"Well, we're more Mitt Romney people."
"I like her," says one man. "I'm not sure she's presidential, but she gets the message out."
"Could she become presidential?"
"Hell, if Obama can be president, so can she."
"We like her personally, but can she win?" said another woman. "We're very worried. She's been so demonized."
Other audience members shared the same opinion. Many of them like Palin, agree with most of her positions, and are inclined to defend her when she is attacked. But they don't necessarily plan to support her for president.
Lee Edwards, a Reagan biographer and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was in the audience and took note of the fact that Palin was speaking to a strongly conservative group at the Ranch Center. She likely wouldn't be invited to speak to a more general audience at the Reagan Library, Edwards said, "because she's not a member of the establishment, and they're not comfortable with her."
"The irony," Edwards continued, "is that neither was Reagan."
Palin ended her speech by noting that she is not calling for Republicans to unite behind any specific leader. "There isn't one replacement for Reagan, but there are millions who believe in the great ideas that he espoused," she said. But of course those millions pick a candidate to represent them. And in Santa Barbara Friday night, Palin did nothing to discourage those who believe she is laying the foundation for a future candidacy. It might not be in 2012 -- remember the years between "A Time for Choosing" and the Reagan White House -- but it could be on the way.
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