Taking Palin's Chances Seriously

I guess it’s time we did. Palin is one of the top two contenders for the nomination right now. She is the only candidate with an actual and substantial popular base of support, the only one who can generate real popular enthusiasm. She has little in the way of an organization of her own, but she’s the candidate in the best position to coopt the organization that the Tea Party Movement is building. And to the extent that her endorsements are perceived to have made a real difference in the primaries (as, after Georgia, they are beginning to be), that will speak loudly to local GOP bigwigs.

Her strongest competition is Mitt Romney, who is strong where Palin is weak – obvious intelligence, establishment backing, proven ability to run an actual campaign for President, strong organizational skills and a deep political organization – but who is strikingly weak where Palin is strong. In fact, Romney is pretty much exactly the candidate Palin wants to run against: someone who generates little popular enthusiasm, comes off as phony, is a member of the elite and the establishment, is easy to tar as a fence-sitter and position-changer – and a man with surprisingly little sex appeal for somebody so objectively good-looking. And he got beat last time by a guy with no organization, no money, and who nobody in the GOP establishment really wanted to see win. And he’s a Mormon. Whose first career was as a Wall Street banker. Who signed a health care plan as governor of Massachusetts that looks a lot like the one President Obama signed for the whole country. Don’t get me wrong – Romney has a very real shot at the nomination. But he’s not the strongest horse I’ve ever seen.

Who else is in the race? Huckabee is weaker than Palin where she is strong and not notably strong where she is weak – and he’s at least as unacceptable to the powers that be in the GOP. And then there’s the parade of governors – Jindal, Pawlenty, Barbour, Daniels, Perry, possibly Christie or somebody else I’ve forgotten. Once upon a time Mark Sanford was on that list. And then there’s Newt Gingrich, a man who may actually have more Republican enemies than Democratic ones. I really do feel like if any of these guys was going to be a serious contender, we’d have heard about it by now. Pawlenty’s the only one who’s definitely running, and Perry is the only one who could consolidate a lot of support quickly if the opportunity arose.

That makes it sound like we’ve basically got a two-person race and we’ll see who wins. But the GOP establishment, such as it is, must be terrified of a Palin campaign, and will want to quash her candidacy somehow. After all, if she runs against them, and wins, then they’ve been defeated. That’s bad enough. If she then runs disastrously in the general election – and all indications are that she would – the party suffers a massive defeat. That’s worse. And if she wins the general election? Well, let’s leave aside what that means for the country and assume we’re just dealing with self-interested individuals worried about their own political futures. If Sarah Palin wins the Presidency, then she reshapes her party to suit her preferences. And anybody who came out strongly against her will be in the doghouse for years. She is not a “with malice toward none, with charity for all” type of Republican.

Moreover, even if they get on-board with her, I have a hard time picturing them being comfortable trusting her. Again, assume they don’t care whether she has any idea what she’s doing and assume they don’t care what happens to the country. Just in terms of political trust – will this person return my favors; will this person play the game – Palin’s got to have a really high wall to climb. Really high.

So no doubt they want to stop her before it gets to that point. How can they do it?

They can’t expect the gasbags to do it for them, because it’s not in their interest. Attacking Palin would be bad business for Limbaugh or Beck or whoever – if only because it would divide their audience. They can’t expect the mainstream media to do it for them because of the limited influence the regular media has in Republican circles. And they can’t do it themselves directly because they don’t act in concert, and anybody who sticks his neck out first is liable to get it chopped off.

Their first, entirely reasonable hope is going to be that she does it to herself. That she fails to build an effective network of support. That she has a massive falling out with leaders of the Tea Party over some esoteric point or other. That she gets blamed for some high-profile midterm losses and responds by lashing out at her critics, making her seem like even more of a loser. That she just gets old, and people move on to something new. If any of that happens, the race opens up. And all of that is very possible. I’m skeptical that Palin can easily be stopped by anybody outside pointing out her deficiencies. But one debate where she looks scared of the competition, or where she comes off as whiny and defensive, and should could drop like a rock, because she’s a celebrity candidate; if her persona cracks she has nothing to fall back on.

But if her strategy works on her terms, then the GOP has a problem.

If that happens, the GOP will need to convince Romney to go kamikaze. Which may not be that hard. Romney has absolutely got to win this time. Palin could put together a career as a media superstar or political kingmaker even if she loses, provided she goes out the right way. Huckabee certainly seems to be enjoying his show. The various worthy governors probably have as good a shot in 2016 as they do now, assuming the GOP loses in 2012. Heck, they all probably would settle for Vice President anyway, and it’s pretty easy to see Jindal or Daniels taking the job of being “President Palin’s brain”. But Romney’s already been running for President for four years. He’s got nowhere else to go. And he has no hope of having a role in a Palin Administration. While others might have reason to appease Palin, Romney has none. The only reason for him not to try to destroy her is if he thinks he’s more likely to win without doing that, and in the scenario we’re worrying about that’s not the case. Of course, throwing everything at her probably damages Romney more than it does her – but he may have no choice at some point but to try it. And if he can damage her enough that both of them have very high negatives among Republicans, then someone like Rick Perry could enter relatively late, swoop in and snatch the nomination. And Romney can console himself with being Treasury Secretary or something.

So that’s the way I expect things to play out. One or two very plausible candidates who may not be sure about running will wait in the wings for a bit. If Palin flames out and Romney doesn’t connect, then we have an open race. If it looks like Romney is running away with it, they stay out. If it looks like a Palin insurgency could actually win, pressure comes down on Romney to put her away, and the new establishment favorite becomes the candidate that the Palinites can reconcile themselves to.

I should say, as an aside, that we should all really hope that Palin does not get the nomination, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats. I admit, I liked her for about five minutes, before she opened her mouth. But, as I later concluded, she’s a shallow and demagogic politician, someone who would be an absolute disaster for the country. I know there are some Democrats who think it’d be a good thing if she were nominated because she’d be easier to beat, but the big drivers of the election are going to be the unemployment rate and events on the war front, and if both go badly the Republicans could probably nominate a ham sandwich and get some traction. They’d certainly be able to get some traction with a nominee who has the keen gut instincts that a successful demagogue like Sarah Palin has to have.