When I see the fervor of Sarah Palin’s fans — and by no means just those who swell the adoring crowds who go to her public appearances — I am convinced that the question is not, “How can she win the GOP nomination?” but “How can she not win it?” When you have anywhere between five and fifteen GOP candidates, all expressing basically the same conservative views, how can anyone other than the only one with the passionate fan base possibly win? And yet: Reading between the lines of what conservative-movement people are saying and writing, there is a great deal of worry about the prospect of a Palin nomination. I would summarize the GOP political writers’ consensus as follows: She must never be criticized, and she must never be nominated.
The most basic underpinning for this view is the notion that she can’t beat Obama, and I think this is a profoundly mistaken assumption. It is based on a too-abstract understanding of the qualifications for the presidency: It holds Palin up against an ideal presidential résumé, and finds her inadequate — which is true enough, but neither fair nor quite relevant. It’s important to remember that in a 2012 general election, she would be confronting not an ideal presidential profile, but an all-too-human flesh-and-blood opponent. The choice between Palin and Obama, phrased in the least flattering (to Palin) possible way, is a choice between a woman who may turn out to be seriously inadequate to the job and, therefore, become a failed president; and a man who has already convincingly demonstrated that he is seriously inadequate to the job and, therefore, already is a failed president. This rather changes the “electability” issue, doesn’t it?
I talked to a savvy GOP politico early this evening, who told me that he believed the Palinmania of her backers — which, as I said above, I consider the gamebreaker for the primaries — will peter out once she goes to Iowa or New Hampshire for the umpteenth time. At that point, he said, she will be seen as just another candidate, and therefore judged on a more even playing field. This commentator knows politics much better than I do, but I remain unconvinced. So far, every gaffe Palin has made and every attack she has endured have only soldered her supporters more securely to her cause. At this point, I think the only way this bond could be broken is through something politically nuclear — the equivalent of Lonesome Rhodes’s famous meltdown at the end of the great 1957 movie, A Face in the Crowd. And anybody who is seriously hoping that, right before the New Hampshire primary, a tape will be released on which Palin is heard referring to Granite State voters as “idiots, morons, and guinea pigs” — well, let me just say that such a person would be letting his hatred of Palin eclipse his common sense.
No, I think the only way Palin will not be the GOP nominee is if she finds a safe, face-saving way to exit the race before the primaries. Some of her supporters may well be working on it: Here is an op-ed, non-ironically titled “Is Sarah Palin Too Good to Be President?” The author says:
Simply, the confines of the presidency may prove too narrow for a name that scales new heights (or, to some, plumbs new depths) in ubiquity and provocation. . . . The iconic images of Sarah the moose-hunter and fisher-woman (many courtesy of her hit TLC show Sarah Palin’s Alaska) and Sarah the tireless, principled and so gosh-darned unpolished campaigner and pundit do not mesh with the duties of the policy wonk in chief, navigating the political terrain, working within the constraints of a one-industry town and facing retirement and decline after a four or eight year apex of public service. Likewise, Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican president with progressive leanings, is as beloved today for his bluster, manliness and war record as he is for his presidential term from 1901-1909.
So she may decide to settle for being a beloved, world-historical figure like TR, and leave the presidency to lesser men (or women!). But there was another politician who faced a similar choice, four years ago: I could be content with the adoring crowds, the bestselling books, the ideological media applauding my every move — or I could go for the presidency. We all know the choice Barack Obama made; and I somehow don’t think — all “quitter” gibes to the contrary — that Sarah Palin has any less fight in her than her fellow basketball player in the Oval Office.
There’s going to be some more split lips before this one’s over.