President Palin? Five Reasons It’s More Likely Than You Think
Over the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of jokes about Sarah Palin, in large part because she wrote some speech notes on her hand when speaking to the first-ever National Tea Party Convention. And according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, most Americans don’t think Palin should be President: 55 percent have an unfavorable view of her, and only 37 percent like her. Even worse news for her, as many as seven in ten Americans — including a majority of Republicans — think she is unqualified to be President.
Given recent history, that may be the worst news possible for President Obama. At a comparable point in time, few recent Presidential aspirants have done much better than Palin did in this poll. Then-candidates Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and even Obama — all were in a similarly weak position in the polls three years before they were elected. In fact, almost all of them were dismissed as outliers with little or no chance of winning their party’s nomination, much less the general election.
The reality is that Sarah Palin is a serious contender for the 2012 Republican Party nomination. And if things don’t get better economically, she may just win the general election as well.
Think I’m wrong? (And trust me, I want to be wrong — ooooh boy do I want to be wrong.) Then consider the following five reasons why I might be right.
5. It’s the economy, stupid. Those on the left who pooh-pooh the tea party movement miss a very important reality: Americans are furious about the state of the economy, and they blame “politicians in Washington” for the mess. President Bush may have created the Great Recession, but it’s President Obama’s problem now. And no matter how justified the Wall Street bailout may have been, it’s left a particularly bad taste in most people’s mouths — and they blame Obama, not Bush.
Two other facts should worry the Obama Administration. First, many of the jobs lost over the past year aren’t coming back. The reality is that the supposed job creation boom of the past thirty years has been as illusory as the housing bubble: most jobs lost helped Americans maintain a middle-class lifestyle, while most jobs created were low-wage service positions.
Second, there has been a bit of a turnaround on job creation — not enough, mind you — but the worst of the Great Recession appears to be over. But most Americans don’t realize that’s true. All they know is that they — or their kid or their neighbor or their dad — don’t have a job, and that Washington doesn’t seem to be very interested in doing anything about it.
If the economy continues to underperform — or Americans continue to believe it’s underperforming — Palin will be able to frame the race as a referendum on economy.
4. “Charisma” almost always trumps “Competency” in Presidential elections. Right now, Palin’s most likely Republican primary opponent is Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was unable to win the nomination in 2008. Romney has been putting together a very strong team, amassing a huge pile of cash, and keeping quiet as other Republicans fight it out. Much as McCain was in 2008, he is the establishment candidate, the one that business leaders and Club for Growth types tend to gravitate towards.
Romney will undoubtedly present himself as the “competent” candidate — the man who, throughout his career, has helped turn around businesses, and who was (at least as he sees it) a pretty darn good governor. The problem is that competence almost never defeats charisma in party primaries, particularly if the charismatic candidate is more popular with the party’s activist base.
Just look at history: almost every time there’s been a highly contested primary season, the more charismatic candidate has won. Obama defeated Hillary Clinton. Dubya defeated McCain. Bill Clinton defeated Tsongas. Reagan defeated Bush Senior. Carter defeated Udall. The only exceptions to this rule that I can think of are McCain, Kerry, Dukakis, and Mondale. And in each of those cases, the “competent” candidate went on to lose to a more charismatic opponent in the general election.
Does anyone doubt that Palin can out-charm ol’ Mittens? Or Tim Pawlenty? Granted, she may get squished in the debates, but given the fact that primary debates look more like those American Idol cattle calls than the Lincoln-Douglas debates, chances are she will make it through without committing a candidacy-ending gaffe.
Should Palin win the nomination, she’ll face a very charismatic opponent in Obama. But he’ll have to run this time as the competence candidate — as almost every sitting President has to do.
3. Palin understands the mass appeal of Nixon’s “silent majority” better than anyone since, well, Nixon. Palin is an outsider’s outsider, far more so than any other Presidential candidate in recent memory. When folks in rural Indiana see that she’s a former beauty queen who went to five colleges and married a blue-collar snow machine racer, they see one of their own. It’s no coincidence that she was a guest of honor at last weekend’s Daytona 500:
The former vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor sped around Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, shaking hands and taking photos with drivers and fans alike before what she called the “all-Americana event.” . . . “This is awesome,” she said. “It’s all-Americana event. Good, patriotic, wonderful event that’s bringing a whole lot of people together. I think this is good for our country.” . . .
“Whether it’s racing cars, dogs, snow machines, it’s an event like this that brings all Americans together,” she said. . . .”We’ve got our snow-machine races up [in Alaska]. This is, of course, on a much greater scale,” she said. “Same type of sport, though, same type of risk-taking, speed-loving all-American event that we participate up north. We love it. You bet.”
Look at that story one more time. She mentions how American stock car racing is on three separate occasions. Think that NASCAR fans won’t read that code? Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” are merely the latest iteration of Nixon’s “silent majority.” As Marc Ambinder observes over at The Atlantic,
“It has been noted that her conservatism is resentment-based, and is fueled and nourished by the specter of elite mistreatment. (Palin is savvy enough to tease back.) But it is more than that. More than a list of grievances, Palin mixes Nixonian derision for those who think they know better with an aspirational dimension that motivates the middle class to vote. Out of the tony leagues of Washington and New York, she is — well, an Idahoan by birth, an exurbanite mother, able to expurgate the Republican Party of its own cosmopolitan tendencies. (This is one reason why the McCain campaign could not tend to her.) She is, as my friend @thetonylee says, “a hybrid of Nixon and Buchanan.”
I’d throw Ross Perot into the mix as well — Palin’s folksy style appeals to those Americans attracted to “prosperity gospel” Christianity — the idea that God wants us to be rich. These folks don’t care that Palin now wears designer suits — they’re happy that she does. In fact, it’s exactly what they want for themselves. The irony is that her success, her love for the good things in life, her very elitism is what makes her even more appealing to many Americans who wonder if they’ll ever catch a break.
2. Palin can put much of the Midwest back in play. One of the most interesting stories to come out of the 2008 Democratic primaries was the degree to which Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in certain parts of the Midwest — those parts of Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Michigan and western Pennsylvania usually referred to as “downstate.” These regions are largely rural, mostly lower middle-class, and predominantly white. They tend to be fairly homogeneous communities whose residents mostly stay put and whose economies are not growing or in decline. These are the people of what East- and West-Coast elites like to call “flyover country,” and who are damn sick and tired of being mocked and ignored.
It would be a huge mistake to regard this as a racial issue. Yes, some Americans would never vote for Obama because he is black. But many would — and a more than a few did — vote for Obama if they thought he could resuscitate their towns and revive their own financial prospects. They represent a significant voting bloc in five key states (PA, OH, MI, IA, and IL), and they could help swing the election away from Obama. Think it can’t happen? Then I suggest that you go back and look at what the loss of Ohio — in large part because of these very voters — did to John Kerry’s prospects.
1. Palin is one of the smartest, most talented, and most effective politicians out there, and we underestimate her at our own risk. Those who think that Sarah Palin is “stupid” really don’t get it. She may not be book smart, but she’s not dumb. In fact, she’s a brilliant political strategist and incredibly charismatic presence who understands the impact of framing her messages and knows her capacity for changing the direction of political debate in this country.
Don’t judge Palin by her missteps during the 2008 election. The Palin we’re seeing now is far wiser — and far savvier — than she was eightteen months ago. She knows what she did wrong then, and she has an army of very talented advisors who will help make sure she doesn’t fall into the same traps she did last time. Almost every major politician in this country has lived through a period of gaffes and outright stupidity and still managed to survive.
Instead, look at what Sarah Palin has done more recently. It was Sarah Palin, after all, who set off the “death panels” firestorm, which badly damaged (and may have killed) Obama’s push for health care reform. It is Sarah Palin who cynically used an offensive comment by Rahm Emmanuel to frame herself as the champion of the developmentally disabled (and at the same time satisfied her base by excusing similar comments by Rush Limbaugh as “satire”). And it is Sarah Palin who brilliantly summed up public anger with Obama when she asked, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?”
Palin the populist understands how to frame her messages in a way that mobilizes her base, uses fear to push independents into her camp, and demoralizes her opponents. And as has been the case with other politicians before her, she’s willing to say almost anything to get elected.
Don’t underestimate this woman, folks. She might not be a once in a generation intellect, but she is a once in a generation populist.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at Palin’s place in the darker side of America’s populist tradition — and why she could be far more dangerous than liberals’ worst fears about Bush or conservatives’ worst fears about Obama.
Photo by geerlingguy via Flickr, using a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the host of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture. You also can follow him on Twitter.