(Cross-posted at Notes from D.R.)
Is Sarah Palin being set up to fail?
It’s hard to avoid that impression after hearing Palin’s disastrous December 3 appearance on Rusty Humphries’ nationally syndicated radio show. Palin, who delivered above-average performances last month on the Fox News Channel programs hosted by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity but failed to acquit herself well on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, bombed spectacularly on Humphries’ broadcast, incoherently discussing the alleged controversy for President Obama’s place of birth and relying on already-stale catchphrases like “common-sense conservatism” and “faith, family and freedom.” Nothing against common sense, conservatism, faith, family or freedom, but Palin needs to understand that as an unofficial representative of the conservative movement, she cannot afford to come across as unfocused or unintelligent in any media appearance: as veteran radio executive Randall Bloomquist once put it, she needs to be great on a good day and good on a bad day. Even if Palin remains inconsistent in terms of the quality of her media appearances, it’s hard to envision her fanbase—which also happens to be the base of the Republican Party—turning against her. That fanbase is down on the GOP these days, regarding the party’s leaders as elitists who are scornful of movement conservatives and more tolerant of moderates such as failed 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. If Republican Party leaders recognize that Palin cannot win a general election, but cannot induce the party’s base to consider alternatives, one wonders if those leaders will, in effect, try to teach the base a lesson. Let’s say the economy recovers in 2011-2012, and President Obama avoids any major foreign-policy screwups heading into his re-election bid. It’s still possible that Obama could be defeated, but only by a candidate who could appeal to folks beyond the GOP’s base, a candidate who is consistently strong in his media appearances, a candidate who never comes across as cognitively compromised. Let’s also say that this candidate is seen by a majority of the GOP base as an untrustworthy moderate, and that this candidate ultimately fails to get past Palin in the 2012 primaries. If Palin becomes the GOP nominee, would it really be too far-fetched to envision the party’s leaders damning her with strong praise, outwardly declaring their firm support while privately expecting, and possibly even hoping, that she fails miserably? I wouldn’t put it past GOP leaders to effectively go rogue on Palin in 2012, quietly rooting for her failure as a means of sending a message to the GOP base that the most conservative candidate in a Republican Party primary is not necessarily the best candidate. Presumably, the party’s leaders understand why Palin is so strongly admired by the base, but they also understand that the base alone cannot bring about a Presidential victory. Think back to the 2000 primary. George W. Bush was not the most conservative combatant in that particular battle royale: former Reagan administration officials Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer were the ones with the unimpeachable conservative credentials regarding fiscal, social and defense issues. Of course, Al Gore would have slaughtered either Keyes or Bauer in the general election; by the time election day rolled around, over 50 percent of the country would have been led to believe that the GOP contender was a Bible-banging wingnut. The base loves Palin because they see her as the real deal—humble in her background, strong in her Christian faith, traditionalist in her worldview. However, the party’s shot-callers surely understand that what endears Palin to her supporters may also repel those who aren’t already on board. GOP bigwigs must be horrified by how inconsistent Palin has been in her recent media appearances, but they also must know that the love the party’s base has for her is just as strong as the love Ronnie had for Nancy. If Palin comes up short against Obama in 2012, it will effectively slap the rose-colored glasses off the faces of her supporters. It isn’t that odd to imagine GOP leaders secretly hoping that this happens. If Palin is defeated resoundingly, it will force the party’s base to confront the unpleasant reality that the country, while not far-left, is not nearly as resolutely conservative as it was decades ago. The average voter will not vote for someone they see as either a left-wing or a right-wing “extremist.” Yes, Reagan was demonized for years as a right-wing extremist prior to his historic 1980 victory; however, it was only President Carter’s catastrophic failure as Commander-in-Chief that compelled voters to take a second look as Reagan’s vision. If the economy has been reasonably strong in 1980, and if Carter had been able to liberate the hostages during Operation Eagle Claw, would Reagan have won that election? Palin seems to recognize that she has enemies within the Republican Party. Does she realize how many enemies there might actually be?