Palin Will Run and Win — Then Lose
The prospect of a Sarah Palin Presidency so offends mainstream sensibility that a convenient consensus has emerged that the former Alaska Governor will not contest the 2012 Republican nomination. To think otherwise seems impolite. But this is wish thinking on a grand scale, and the question itself — will she or won’t she? — is quaint and daft. Not only is Palin running, she is running ahead and she is more likely than not to win the nomination that allows her to take on Barack Obama.
The idea that Palin will opt out of the 2012 race rests on a three common misconceptions about the nature of political ambition.
The first myth is that that prospective nominees need to find compelling reasons to enter a race, perhaps because decisions to seek public office are often couched in terms of reluctance, sacrifice and struggle. In fact, this is stagecrafted spin: political ambition is a fairly straight-forward impulse, not subject to contemplation. For a political animal like Palin, the motivation is seek higher office is innate and immutable — and a compelling rationale is needed only for declining to run. (And when you consider that even smart, qualified and capable people like Bill Richardson (D-NM, 2008) and Orrin Hatch (R-UH, 2000) were unable to see the abject futility of their respective presidential bids, it is worth noting how persuasive the case against must be.)
The second myth is that the lure of cash outside politics is too much to resist for Palin. It’s true the former beauty queen is hauling in bucketloads of cash from media and speaking engagements, certainly a great deal more than her humble gubernatorial and Mayoral stipends. But Palin’s earning power will diminish over time, and will do so quickly if she opts out of active politics. More importantly, whatever the appeal of newfound wealth, no amount of bling will compete with the power and status of the White House. Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, has spent USD$100 million of her own money just to win the GOP nomination for the worst job in US politics, the Governorship of California. Palin’s money-making is not a sign she is leaning against running for President — it is a sign she wants to find a way to pay for it.
Thirdly, the Palin-denial crowd point to her dreadful weaknesses as a candidate as reason for her to resist the temptation to seek the GOP nomination. This is the “she will be annihilated and she knows it” argument. Many Liberal critics argue that Palin herself is too stupid and arrogant to see these weaknesses in the first place, and I have no way of knowing whether this is true. But the genius of Palin is that she has constructed a self-serving narrative that makes assets from liabilities and allies from enemies. It goes like this:
Palin: The elites in the lamestream media don’t like me ‘cos I talk the darn-tootin’ truth to the American people!
Media: That woman is an idiot.
Palin: What did I tell you?
Every criticism of Palin proves her point. Her ignorance just illustrates that she hasn’t been stuck in Ivy League colleges with communist roommates and bi-curious friends. Her lack of experience and knowledge of government means she is an outsider who hasn’t been tainted by access and power. Her mangling of the English languages goes to show that she is speaking from the heart!
Sarah Palin is a huge story, and her candidacy will alarm and delight the media in turns. She will shift newspapers and drive ratings like Obama in ’08, perhaps more. But the prospect that she could become President will cause such queasiness among the media and political establishment (on the GOP side as well) that there will be a scramble to bring her down. Late night comics will enter meltdown phase, ecstatic with the wealth of material Palin brings to them, but mortified that she may actually win. In the process, Palin will become unbeatable among Republicans. She will sweep Iowa, where the caucus voters are largely Evangelical Christians, hold her own in New Hampshire, and wipe the field in South Carolina. From there, it is her versus the rest, 4 or 5 middle-aged all-cattle-no-hat white guys like Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney (or Who? Who? and Eww). Barring a scandal, she wins the GOP relatively quickly and Obama is all that stands between her and his job.
That’s where her troubles start. Palin may be an irresistible force, but American electoral demography is an immovable object. In a general election, Palin is deeply flawed. She can’t win enough Democrats or independents; she is very unpopular outside of deep-red pockets; and she is loathed by moderate, Hispanic and college-educated voters (all growing segments). The state of the US economy remains an open question, but assuming a fair to good recovery, Palin could lose to Obama by historic proportions. Her best hope is that a double or triple dip recession drives voter turnout so low that white Christians can deliver her enough votes . But even that seems unlikely. Palin’s power to inspire is a double-edge sword, and it’s hard to imagine a low turn-out on either side with her on the ballot.