Thanks to all the readers who wrote in about my Palin post. Let me share one letter that I found especially interesting. The reader was responding specifically to my contention that Palin may be for 2012 what Obama was for 2008: the candidate whom many “elite gatekeepers” consider dangerously unqualified, but whom adoring crowds will nonetheless sweep to victory in the general election. Here’s the e-mail:
Palin has rabid fans, but someone who was neutral like me has now gone to completely negative. What an egotist. I can’t stand the sight of her. I think the analogy is more with other inevitables like Kemp or Dean, not Obama.
Daniels/Jindal, my dream ticket for 2012. The right words, with no flash. The public is sick of flash right now.
The writer is a conservative Catholic English professor who describes himself as “unapologetically pro-life” and declares that his personal hero is political philosopher Mary Ann Glendon; I will not release his name because I want him to be safe from reprisals. Now there are a number of things that struck me about this, things that are suggestive about Palin’s prospects.
First, note that the reader does not actually criticize Palin’s issue positions, or even her objective qualifications (or lack of same), in general, for the presidency. No, he cuts straight to the chase: She is an egotist and I can’t stand her. I think that underpinning much of the criticism of Palin as unqualified is a similar fundamental, personal dislike. After all, many people who object strenuously to Palin’s lack of preparation voted enthusiastically for Obama, who was equally lacking in that regard. So we are left with a dispute that boils down to Palin’s personality. In the GOP primaries, those who love her passionately will outnumber those who detest her passionately—unless those who detest her all decide to coalesce behind a single candidate. Which is not likely: In 2008, McCain was detested by far more Republicans than detest Palin today (remember those charming, classy T-shirts that said, “I’d rather be waterboarded than vote for McCain”?). Conservatives waited in vain for a candidate who could unite the anti-McCain vote.
Second, the reader raises the analogies of Jack Kemp and Howard Dean, which on examination I think actually bolster the odds of a Palin victory. I liked Kemp very much, but he was never seen as a front-runner—especially after his poor performance in the 1988 primaries. He was always more of a boutique taste; despite his much greater closeness to Reagan’s views, Bush and Dole had an edge over him even going in to 1988. The Howard Dean example is even more instructive. He had huge, passionate, Palinesque crowds, and seemed headed toward the nomination—until the famous “Dean scream” moment. The media’s depiction of that event was deeply unfair to Dean, but it wrecked his candidacy. In Palin we have a candidate who has already had countless “Dean scream” moments—some, like the Dean scream itself, unfairly abused by the media to be portrayed as damaging; many others, quite legitimate evidence of a serious problem. Yet none of them has made a difference to her backers.
All of which, as far as I’m concerned, answers definitively the question of Can she win? The next question, to be examined over the next two years, is Should she be president? I think that in a country that’s as evenly split ideologically as today’s America, we will be condemned for the foreseeable future to having a president who is not just passionately disagreed with, but hated and viewed as illegitimate by a very large minority of citizens. The post-Cold War Clintonite bipartisan utopia some of us hoped for (I plead guilty) is not in the cards. The prospect of a Palin presidency may be seriously depressing to many who hope for a better politics, but such people should not delude themselves that defeating Palin would solve the problem.
A Mitch Daniels or a Bobby Jindal does, to me as to the reader I quoted above, look more like the sort of person we should entrust with executive power at a time of massive instability (both geopolitical and economic). I think Claire Berlinski’s recent comments in this regard are apt. But I can’t help thinking, also, of the idea Rumsfeld expressed a few years ago, that you go to war with the army you have. I am not sure that — to use my reader’s words — “the public is sick of flash”: The desire to elevate people like Obama and Palin remains very much a part of the political landscape. So we are left hoping that the Obama 2008/Palin 2012 sort of talent — which, in each case, most people will choose to label either “passionately reflective of deeply felt public values” or “sickeningly demagogic pandering,” depending entirely on their own political views — may actually end up being used in service of the public good.
In the case of Palin 2012, forgive me for bringing up Nixon and China; I am as bored with the analogy as you are. But it remains true that a McCarthyite Red-baiter was the one who concluded a rapprochement with the world’s largest Communist tyranny. Palin is succeeding in convincing resentful masses of Americans that she is on their side against a big-spending elite. So far, so banal: She’s telling people what they want to hear, and therefore they applaud her. But if the bond she creates with her audiences is real, doesn’t that create an opening for some real leadership? Wouldn’t she, as president, have greater standing than the typical politician to ask Americans to join in shared sacrifices, to pull the country away from complete bankruptcy?
I admit that the Obama precedent is a discouraging one. The fact that a candidate’s feel-good rhetoric is cheered frenziedly by millions in a campaign does not prove that the candidate, once elected, has the will or the capability to be a true leader. It is, as Claire Berlinski suggested, unfortunate that we find ourselves asking these questions. But you go to war with the army you have, and pray.