On Wednesday, Jon Chait predicted that Palin would be the GOP nominee for president in 2012. That’s a bet I’ll gladly take, since I happen to think there’s zero chance of it happening.
My confidence is based on five things:
1.) Infrastructure. Yes, Palin is “wildly popular with the Republican base,” as Jon says. But there’s a big difference between being popular and translating popularity into money and votes. To do the latter, you need an organization of loyal, experienced operatives willing to devote themselves fulltime to a multi-year effort. Without that stuff, you’re just Fred Thompson—a popular idea that never pans out in reality. (I’d emphasize here that Jon thought Thompson had a "very strong" shot at the GOP nomination.)
Unfortunately for Palin, the only organization she can claim outside the McCain campaign is her husband Todd and a gang of Wasilla cronies—not exactly a Lincoln-esque team of rivals. And, while it’s possible that she’ll attract some interest from veteran Washington hands rooting around for the next big thing, I doubt the likes of Bill Kristol and Grover Norquist are going to ship off to Alaska to lay the groundwork for Palin ’12. As Thompson proved, it’s not enough to have a few opportunistic wiseguys occasionally phoning in advice. You need real loyalists.
2.) Jon concedes that “some conservative commentators have attacked her,” but adds that “these are a small minority and almost all of them work for publications aimed at mainstream readers, not the conservative subculture.” I’m not sure this is right. Yes, David Brooks works for a mainstream outlet. But Kathleen Parker lacerated Palin in National Review, while Peggy Noonan did the same in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. If there’s a better way to influence conservative opinion (at least in print), I’m not aware of it.
Anyway, I'm not so sure that the distinction between mainstream and conservative publications matters much these days. Former Bush speechwriter and conservative-in-good-standing David Frum laid into Palin in the National Post--not exactly the house organ of the conservative movement. But I doubt it passed into the ether without right-wing blog-readers hearing about it first. (Likewise, I'd guess Kristol's pronouncements in the Times get as much play on conservative blogs as his pronouncements in The Weekly Standard.)
More importantly, while I agree that Palin's critics are a minority on the right, that can hardly be reassuring to her. Partisans are loath to criticize their own in the closing weeks of a campaign. Surely numerous conservative Palin skeptics are keeping quiet till after the election, when there's no risk of hurting their party. Which is to say, we’re clearly looking at the floor for Palin criticism, not the ceiling. It’ll get much worse from here on out.
3.) The McCain campaign has expertly exploited two grievances to deflect criticism from Palin: They either dismiss it as sexism or liberal media bias. The problem in a GOP primary is that it'll be fellow Republicans--that is, Palin's rivals for the nomination--who do the criticizing, rendering the media-bias charge inoperative. And while she can try to play the gender card, it’s not a charge that typically resonates with conservatives (that is, unless they can use it to bash Democrats and the media).
4.) There will be plenty of other candidates to fill Palin’s niche in 2012--except much, much more competently. Mike Huckabee, for one, has demonstrated both an appeal to populist-minded social conservatives and an ability to speak coherently without notes or a teleprompter. Bobby Jindal has done the same. I have a hard time seeing Palin as much of a match-up for either of them.
5.) As I’ve argued before, Palin doesn’t wear well over any extended length of time—the reason being that her chief asset is novelty, which fades by definition. I’d venture that one reason she remains so popular among working-class conservatives is that they follow politics less closely than the rest of us, meaning they’ve had less time to get burnt out on her. (Though I’d concede that her appeal to this group is based on more than novelty alone.) Unfortunately, a presidential primary is one of the most drawn-out, grueling selection processes ever devised. If Palin didn’t wear well in a two-month campaign, I have a hard time believing she’ll wear well over an 18-month primary season.
Having said all that, Palin will clearly have enough residual support to mount some sort of campaign. Given her willingness to knee-cap former allies, I’m as eager as Chait for the next primary season to get here.