Jon Meacham says Sarah Palin is "an heir to the Goldwater tradition," which is sort of like saying Michael Bay is an heir to the Jean-Luc Godard tradition: Sure, they're both movie directors, and both are known for their signature brands of impressionistic editing, but unless you're trying to make the inverse point that Godard was a brilliant and incredibly influential innovator and Bay is a hack (admittedly an often highly entertaining one), for anyone who actually knows anything at all about movies, the comparison's basically useless.
Same here. Meacham stakes his analogy on the idea that "Goldwater was seen in real time as an extremist, as the embodiment of unflinching conservative dogma"—a politician so fringe that "even Nixon wanted to distance himself from the nominee." That's right: Nixon, a president so devoted to purist conservatism that he imposed price and wage controls, and so off-the-map extreme in his right-wing ideology that liberal icon Paul Krugman recently discovered a newfound appreciation for the guy.
What Meacham totally misses is that Goldwater's politics were based in a broadly principled opposition to expanding the authority of the federal government. Yes, he relied in part on an Western-flavored, individualistic attitude to help popularize his ideas, but stubborn principle was the key to his appeal, his political goals, and his lasting influence.
Palin's politics and appeal, on the other hand, are based almost exclusively on attitude. Instead of principle or policy, she sells a carefully crafted resentment shtick. As anyone who watched her campaign interviews last year saw firsthand, when it comes to discussing policy details, she's one of the least competent, least reliable major political figures in recent memory. Voters don't trust her on the issues, and even Palin's most ardent defenders are now saying that, if she's to have any chance of rehabilitating her flagging public image, she needs to "strengthen her policy credentials."
As Palin's book hits this week, we'll get a glimpse of whether Palin's particular appeal has any staying power. But whether or not it does, it won't have anything to do with Barry Goldwater.
Read more from Reason on Barry Goldwater here.