Half-Baked Alaska

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, July 8, 2009)


With her abrupt resignation barely halfway through her first term as governor, Sarah Palin probably hurt her chances of being the Republicans’ presidential nominee in 2012.

After a campaign in which her inexperience proved embarrassing to the GOP ticket and fuel for “Saturday Night Live’s” brief return trip to satirical relevance, walking out on her sole source of meaningful experience — and the voters who put her in office — doesn’t seem the best plan. The general consensus in the days following her announcement was that she’d once again shot herself in the foot more easily than she viciously shoots defenseless animals from a helicopter.

Before progressives celebrate too thoroughly, however, it is worth noting there is still one way that Palin’s attempt to move to a bigger stage could improve her party’s fortunes.

It’s easy to hope she runs for the sheer comedic value and the way another ticket with Palin’s name on it would likely admit the Republicans to long-term minority status. But aside from wanting to excise her vile brand of provincialism from the public discourse — itself a good enough reason — there’s another motive for hoping she doesn’t run in 2012.

Just as her brand of fringe politics helped galvanize swing voters to give Barack Obama a landslide win, she could be an equally effective foil for a more moderate — and more electable — Republican next time around.

Whomever the Republicans nominate, the 2012 election will essentially be a referendum on President Obama. That’s perfectly normal for an incumbent president, particularly one who has pursued an active agenda. The first decision voters will make in the next presidential race is whether they want to keep Obama in office. If the answer is a clear yes, it doesn’t really matter who the opposition puts up, as Bob Dole and Walter Mondale (and plenty of others) learned.

Obama currently enjoys one of the public highest approval ratings for a new president since such data began — currently 58 percent according to Gallup — but there’s no way to predict how popular he will be in 2012. If the economy doesn’t strengthen enough, or if measures such as universal health care aren’t passed, there will be voters willing to consider replacing the president with a viable alternative. Then the challenge for the Republicans will be finding someone from their rapidly shrinking party who can draw independents and disaffected Democrats.

Palin, clearly, is not that person, though she has her defenders. On Tuesday, Politico chief columnist Roger Simon argued for Palin as the logical next Republican nominee, saying she is unfairly maligned by the national media and what he calls “the party mandarins, the poo-bahs.” Simon writes, “If it were not for one simple fact, I would say she was through in politics. And that fact is that if the Republicans were picking a nominee today, they would pick Sarah Palin.”

In theory, it sounds possible. In Iowa, the first state on the primary calendar, Republican caucus goers do tend toward the evangelical, which certainly helped Mike Huckabee in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000. But they both had significantly more experience and ran as (to use Bush’s parlance) “compassionate conservatives.” Particularly Huckabee, whose campaign was built on a collegial, friendly pastor demeanor noticeably different from Palin, who takes an alienating, red-meat-for-the-base approach with nearly all her public comments. But even if Palin succeeds in Iowa, that’s no sure sign of victory. John McCain finished a distant fourth there last year, while Michael Dukakis, George McGovern, and George H.W. Bush all won nominations while getting crushed in Iowa.

Additionally, for the past few decades, the Republican Party has been notoriously inhospitable to insurgent candidacies — those the mandarins don’t want. The party likes to nominate the candidate “next in line,” and the party leadership is quite effective at getting behind one candidate even when the rank-and-file haven’t made a choice yet. The obvious “next in line” for 2012 is Mitt Romney, who already played his own part in this practice by conceding the 2008 race to McCain immediately after Super Tuesday.

If Rush Limbaugh gets his wish and the current administration doesn’t succeed, Romney is a perfect example of a conservative candidate Republican leaders can rally around who can also draw moderates. He’s been elected governor of Massachusetts, and an April poll showed half the residents of that state preferring him to his Democratic successor. He’s close with the business community that still makes up a big chunk of the Republican base, was born into the auto industry and into politics, and gained some national recognition for helping reorganize the flailing Salt Lake City Olympics. And he has already shown he can put together the kind of fundraising and organization a nomination campaign requires.

If Palin runs against Romney (or someone in his mold) in 2012, the Republican Party will face the logical end of the internal struggle it has grappled with since its recent failures destroyed its stranglehold on power. The marriage of convenience between the party’s Wall Street wing and its culture-war wing — between traditional Republicans and “traditional” Republicans — required both to live with existential contradictions, ensuring the bonds would eventually break once the symbiotic relationship became less beneficial.

Palin’s branch of the Republican Party has spent the last few years trying to commit suicide by dismemberment. These are the people who attack “RINOs” as insufficiently doctrinaire, driving Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party and running far-right losers against potentially electable Republicans such as Heather Wilson in Senate primaries. The people who attacked RNC chairman Michael Steele for having the temerity to suggest the party needs to expand its base beyond the numbers that lost the last election. Just as Barry Goldwater drove the party off a cliff in 1964, a Palin nomination could have the same effect, requiring another massive reorganization and another long stretch of Democratic rule before the GOP becomes relevant again.

Having Palin in the race, though, gives another Republican a chance to publicly reject that roadmap. John McCain tried to run against George Bush, but had the misfortune of facing other Republicans with the same strategy while he simultaneously tried to defend backing many of Bush’s worst misdeeds. As with Bush, the American public has consistently shown that it not only doesn’t like Sarah Palin but also actively dislikes her. For dozens of good reasons. Running against Palin, crushing her in debates and holding her up as an extreme, is among the best routes to mainstream credibility for another Republican (who will then draw Palin’s voters in a race against Obama).

There’s also a chance that Palin’s choice to cut and run from the governorship really marked the end of her public life. That she’ll give up aspirations for higher office, fade away, and become best known as the answer to a trivia question. On Friday, Palin said she would not “allow millions and millions of our dollars to go to waste just so I can hold the title of governor.” Here’s hoping she won’t waste millions of dollars just to make some other conservative candidate look better by comparison.

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