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Madonna is in the building

What are the Republicans going to do about Palin?

My Sunday print column, expanded for online:

Sarah Palin. Need I say more?

Buoyed by a ubiquitous autumn on the book and broadcast circuit, she has cemented her status as a brand that excites and exasperates, titillates and polarizes. Sort of like Madonna.

Jackson Browne, the singer-songwriter, once penned the lyric, "I don't care about Madonna/ Or the next thing she might do." The Republicans don't have that luxury. In the early jockeying for the 2012 presidential race, everything Palin does is potentially consequential. Nobody else in the GOP can touch her skills as a performance artist who plucks the requisite populist chords. The big question is whether it would be wise or ruinous to nominate her.

This is a new kind of dilemma for the Republicans, who are hierarchial by nature. They typically choose nominees who have paid their dues. John McCain was hardly a consensus party figure, but he was next in line. Bob Dole in 1996 was next in line. The senior George Bush in 1988 was next in line. So was Ronald Reagan in 1980, given his close loss in the '76 primaries. The younger George Bush in 2000 was deemed next in line because of his party establishment connections and pedigree.

Palin is something else entirely; establishment Republicans haven't quite figured out how to deal with her. They respect her gift for connecting with what she calls "regular Americans," but there are millions of hostile "irregular" Americans roaming the land, enough to make her a landslide loser. And there's something a tad weird about her new-fangled habit of posting simplicities on Facebook.

Still, who else in the wide-open Republican field can generate so much buzz? Who else inspires such visceral devotion? Among her fans – the kind of folks who would flood the Iowa caucuses in the winter of 2012 – she is essentially critic-proof, much like a badly-written bestselling pulp novel. The more she is attacked for lack of substance, the more they love her. The more she is successfully fact-checked by the "elite," the tighter the ties with those who feel similarly aggrieved.

She has said some ludicrous things lately, at least by conventional standards. On a conservative radio show, she bonded with the wingnuts on the phony issue about President Obama's place of birth, declaring that "it's a fair question" to wonder whether he was born on American soil, and that "the public, rightfully, is still making it an issue." And in a guest newspaper column last week, she bonded with the global warming denial crowd, insisting that "we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes."

It's probably futile to point out that, during the '08 campaign, Palin said the opposite, that man does cause weather changes. As she explained it at the time (English students, do not attempt to diagram this sentence): "You know there are, there are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now, these impacts." But all attempts to hold her accountable are routinely dismissed by her fan base as persecution.

She is impervious to the accountabilty rules that bind her more conventional rivals, and most Republicans apparently find that intriguing. For evidence, look no further than the Gallup poll. Last month, 58 percent of Republicans nationwide felt that Palin was qualified to be president - yet, in the same poll, 65 percent of Republicans said they would "seriously consider" supporting her for president.

Think about that one. A sizeable share of Republicans are actually receptive to supporting a prospective nominee whom they recognize to be fundamentally deficient. (Gallup asked Republican voters about all the '12 hopefuls. Palin was the only candidate whose support percentage was higher than the qualification percentage.)

Perhaps this bizarre gap is easily explained: Some Republicans might be thinking, "Well, I don't believe she has the chops, but the folks out there definitely do, which means she could have staying power." The more she is attacked for her manifest flaws, the more her supporters become convinced that they share the same enemies – and the more they are prepared to stick by her during a combative campaign. Does Mitt Romney inspire that kind of loyalty? Does Tim Pawlenty?
But there's another possible explanation for why so many Republicans might opt to back Palin despite believing she is ill-qualified. It's simple, really. Many conservatives are congenitally hostile to government, so perhaps it's a logical next step to "seriously consider" someone who is ill suited to perform the onerous, complex tasks of governance.

Let's remember, however, that not all Republicans think alike. Palin's popularity is strongest in the grassroots heartland; she remains considerably less popular inside the Beltway, where the national party is headquartered. (All that score-settling in her memoir probably hasn't helped her much.) Last Friday, the nonpartisan National Journal released a new survey of GOP insiders and strategists, after having asked them, "Which voice in the party would you most like to mute?" Palin was the first choice, outdistancing her nearest competitor, party chairman Michael Steele, by 16 percentage points.

This is further evidence that Palin has the potential to divide the GOP, pitting the grassroots against the elite. Indeed, within the inchoate "tea party" movement (which is ostensibly, but not exclusively, Republican-friendly), Palin is lauded not for her credentials but for who she is perceived to be. She is regular folks. She shares their resentments, gives voice to their grievances. In this sense, she is eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon, the scrappy kid born of humble origins who made a career of politicizing resentments, inveighing against the elite eastern establishment that sought (in his telling) to keep him down. Today, none of Palin's rivals can match her Nixonesque ties to the "tea party" voters who will be crucial to the GOP's prospects in 2012. (And earlier this month, she even told a conservative talk show host that she might be interested in running as a third-party "tea party" candidate in '12, if the GOP doesn't shape up.)

The Nixon simile is imperfect, however. Unlike Palin, who quit her day job two years prior to completion, Nixon logged 14 years in Washington before he ever ran for president, and by the time he was finally elected, he was already fluent in the nuances of foreign policy. And as skilled as he was at wooing the aggrieved members of the Republican base, he won two national races by capturing the swing voters in the center.

Today, Republican leaders are reluctant to publicly voice their private concerns about Palin's low ceiling; in the aforementioned Gallup poll, only 28 percent of independents deem her qualified to govern. Her birther remarks certainly won't boost that number. Nor will her remarks on global warming. And I doubt that independents with tolerant instincts will be charmed by her father's recollection of why she quit the first of her four colleges, in Hawaii. He recently told The New Yorker that all those Asians and Pacific Islanders made her uncomfortable: "They were a minority type thing and it wasn't glamorous."

The typical GOP tactic these days is to treat Palin with infinite care, as one would a live grenade. When Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour – a former national chairman, Washington lobbyist, establishment fixture, and possible '12 hopeful – was recently asked on MSNBC whether he thought she was qualified to be president, he replied with the utmost caution. "Well, constitutionally, she sure is."

That was hardly a raving endorsement; rather, Barbour's remark reflected the party's unease about the tough task ahead, its crying need to tap into Palin's grassroots energy - without necessarily putting her in charge. This will be a long and delicate mission, all while waiting breathlessly for the next thing she might do.