Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sarah Palin's Influence

This morning I posted the following comment on my Facebook status:

Considering the growing list of underdog Republicans who have won upset victories in their party's Senate primaries after being endorsed by Sarah Palin (Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Joe Miller, Christine O'Donnell, to name only a few), we may have to conclude that her strength among the right-wing grassroots is so strong that her ability to receive the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 isn't just possible, but likely.

I then added this as an addendum:

Allow me to elaborate on this thought.

If you had asked me a year ago whether I thought Sarah Palin could receive the Republican presidential nomination, I would have responded that there was no way in hell. In my mind, Sarah Palin belonged in the same category as Robert Taft and Dan Quayle - i.e., someone who, despite being beloved by the right-wing grassroots voters which are such a key part of the Republican base, was widely recognized as too unelectable to ever be a smart pick for that party's presidential nomination.

That was before she endorsed a string of obscure radical right-wingers in various Senate primaries and watched as two-thirds of those candidates went on to win the Republican nominations in their respective states.

That in its own right would prove nothing more than the fact that Sarah Palin has wide and deep popularity among conservatives today and can thus sway them with a flick of her electoral wrist. What makes this more noteworthy, however, is the fact that many of the candidates she endorsed - such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware - were distinctly less electable than their alternatives. Few pundits disagree that Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian would have had a much better chance of defeating Harry Reid in Nevada, or that Mike Castle was all but a sure thing against Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware (O'Donnell, meanwhile, is so far behind Coons in polls that most experts agree picking her over Castle has single-handedly turned what would have been a definite win for the GOP in Delaware into a virtually inevitable loss). Yet Palin's endorsements of Angle and O'Donnell, when connected with their backing from the Tea Party movement (two phenomena, in my mind, that are virtually interchangeable), was enough to override the electoral pragmatism that would have normally dictated victories for Castle and either Lowden or Tarkanian. Making this even more sobering is the fact that, apart from the fact that Angle and O'Donnell play to a bunch of right-wing fringe ideas to which Castle, Lowden, and Tarkanian were too respectable to indulge, all of these candidates were virtually identical in their adherence to Reaganite ideological precepts. In short, even if one takes the perspective of a staunch conservative, there is very little reason to have not supported Castle, Lowden, or Tarkanian over Angle and O'Donnell.

That is, unless the views of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement carries such weight with you that it overrides all other variables.

Flash forward to 2012. Obviously a great deal can happen in the fourteen months separating the November 2010 midterm elections and the first Republican presidential primary. If economic issues (high unemployment, concerns about the budget deficit) continue to mount in the public's mind, Republican primary voters may as yet do the politically smart thing and nominate Mitt Romney
(, who can take advantage of his image as a comparative moderate and his strong business background to parlay Obama’s economic struggles into a Republican victory.

At the same time, the outcomes of these recent Republican primaries suggests another feasible possibility. In that one, the political world learns, to its amazement, that Republican primary voters are much more radical than the independents and Democrats who try to forecast their behavior. Despite the undeniable fact that a host of other alternatives with strong conservative credentials would have a much better chance at defeating Obama in the fall - including not only Romney but lesser-known candidates like Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota - these voters wind up allowing their passion for Sarah Palin to decide how they cast their ballots. In that alternate universe, Sarah Palin manages to touch the same incendiary ideological chord that has caused primary voters in both parties to throw caution to the wind at various points in American history and vote with their hearts (and spleens) instead of their heads - such as when the far right gave the nomination to Barry Goldwater instead of Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, or Bill Scranton in 1964, or when the far left chose George McGovern over Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, or Scoop Jackson in 1972.

Of course, the good news for liberals (such as myself) is that, much as the radical right brought the Republicans to defeat with Goldwater in '64 and the New Left did the same with McGovern in '72, so too is it probable that a Palin nomination in '12 would end in disaster for Republican presidential prospects that year. Although as a feminist the notion of having Sarah Palin earn the distinction of being the first to crack the proverbial glass ceiling breaks my heart, that sadness is at least partially allayed by the knowledge her selection would likely result in Barack Obama’s comfortable re-election.

Yet there are more reasons for mourning a Palin nomination, even if it does result in defeat, besides the feminist ones. While I may disagree with the conservative ideology, it is an intellectually valid one, and as such deserves smart, articulate spokespeople on the national stage. The movement that has currently been hijacked by the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and the Tea Party also has proponents and movements of a higher intellectual caliber, from current candidates like Mitch Daniels to past ones like Barry Goldwater (whose pedigree as a great mind, regardless of what one thinks of his ideas, is beyond dispute), and with pundits such as George Will, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, Charles Johnson, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, Richard Perle, Christopher Buckley, Peggy Noonan, and Michelle Bernard. Heck, even Bill O'Reilly has enough intellectual integrity that he probably deserves being grouped with this latter batch of thinkers than with the former one.

In short, while I may not believe that conservatives deserve power, I am willing to concede this much - they deserve better than Sarah Palin.

Then I needed to include one last postscript:

I have just heard that Kelly Ayotte defeated Ovide Lamontagne in New Hampshire's Republican Senate primary. Although Lamontagne was the choice of the Tea Party movement, the comparatively moderate Ayotte received the strong backing of Sarah Palin and is widely considered to have been the more electable of the two candidates. Obviously Ayotte's victory is just one more triumph for Palin; the reason why this is so, though, deserves exploration.

1) It is worth noting that, in every major Republican primary in which Palin has endorsed a candidate, her choice has almost invariably been for the Tea Party pick and against those who are perceived as more moderate in their views.

2) There have been only two noteworthy exceptions to this rule - in the Iowa governor's race, where she endorsed moderate Republican Terry Branstad (who won the nomination) and in New Hampshire, where she endorsed Ayotte.

For those who are familiar with presidential election cycles, I need not point out that the first two primaries are always held in Iowa and New Hampshire. In order to obtain the nomination in either party, posting a win (or at least a respectable showing) in at least one of those two contests is absolutely critical - if further proof is needed, simply look at how Rudy Giuliani's frontrunner status was destroyed when he decided to skip those two primaries and wound up losing momentum to John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. What's more, since endorsements from key political figures in each of those states has often done wonders in helping presidential prospects win those primaries, it makes perfect sense that Sarah Palin would get involved in Republican primary contests there and back horses of her choice.

None of this is particularly surprising. What IS noteworthy, though, is the colors of the horses she has chosen to back. Outside of New Hampshire and Iowa, it has always been Tea Party broncos; yet in those two states, she chose more moderate stallions.

Why? The reason is simple: In New Hampshire and Iowa, the moderates were perceived as being more electable. If her goal is to have an edge in those two primaries by having politically influential Republicans back her candidacy, then she needs to not merely back a Republican candidate, but back the WINNING Republican candidate; after all, if she backs a candidate who winds up taking the Republican nomination but losing to a Democrat in the general election, that doesn't do her a lick of good. Only having an ELECTED Senator or Governor in her political debt will help her there.

Outside of those two states, however, her objective is not so much to help a Republican cross the goal line to electoral victory as it is to make sure that her bona fides among the burgeoning right-wing grassroots are as sound as possible. Clearly her strategy in 2012 will be to have the Tea Party and other right-wing true believers back her against more moderate alternatives (Mitt Romney, even Mike Huckabee), and for that to work, she needs to make it as clear as possible that she is on their side. Whether or not the Tea Party candidates win is thus less important than making a public showing of having endorsed them. Of course, actually HAVING them get their party's nominations (which has happened with two-thirds of the candidates she's endorsed) does always help, since it strengthens her image as being a political powerhouse. That said, even if they lose in the following general election (which seems probable in the case of Christine O'Donnell and at least 50/50 in the case of Sharron Angle), Palin can always claim that that was a sign of - I don't know, inadequate support from the Republican establishment (which she can claim, falsely of course, is opposed to her and her "maverick" ways), or electoral corruption, or whatever other spin winds up getting the best reception with her base.

It won't matter. The point is that what we are seeing here are the unmistakable maneuvers of someone who is planning a presidential run in 2012. What's more worrisome, though, is the fact that - if Ayotte and Brandstad win, as predicted, and if even half of the other Palin-endorsed nominee wind up taking their elections, as also predicted - she will walk out of the 2010 midterm elections with an enormous advantage for the 2012 primaries.

The possibility that Sarah Palin will be Barack Obama's opponent in his re-election campaigns is becoming increasingly more likely.

If there is any silver lining to this cloud, it is that I still don't believe Sarah Palin and her running mate (who, though I shudder to think of it, would quite likely be Eric Cantor, since he'd help her in the swing state of Virginia and balance her Christian Right image by being a Jew) would actually win. My suspicion is that she would walk away with the the bare minimum of what would go to the Republicans anyway in these contests - i.e., between 37% and 43% of the popular vote and the electoral votes of Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, or 170 electoral votes.

As I wrote before, though, there are greater things at stake here than the outcome of a single election.

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