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The Anti-Palin Cabal

Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei report that the Republican establishment is desperate to stop Sarah Palin from claiming the Republican nomination:

Interviews with advisers to the main 2012 presidential contenders and with other veteran Republican operatives make clear they see themselves on a common, if uncoordinated, mission of halting the momentum and credibility Palin gained with conservative activists by plunging so aggressively into this year’s midterm campaigns.
There is rising expectation among GOP elites that Palin will probably run for president in 2012 and could win the Republican nomination, a prospect many of them regard as a disaster in waiting.
Many of these establishment figures argue in not-for-attribution comments that Palin’s nomination would ensure President Barack Obama’s reelection, as the deficiencies that marked her 2008 debut as a vice presidential nominee — an intensely polarizing political style and often halting and superficial answers when pressed on policy — have shown little sign of abating in the past two years.

"There is a determined, focused establishment effort … to find a candidate we can coalesce around who can beat Sarah Palin," said one prominent and longtime Washington Republican. "We believe she could get the nomination, but Barack Obama would crush her."

I wish them well, being more than willing to trade away the higher chance that Obama would beat her in order to avert the risk that she could actually win. But I see two serious problems with the establishment's anti-Palin campaign. The first is a coordination problem. Palin has very intense support. There are many Republicans who would like to carry the anti-Palin banner. But if they all run, they'll split the non-Palin vote. What they really need is to have a primary-within-a-primary for non-Palin Republicans, with the losers pledging to support the winner. Perhaps they can find some non-electoral mechanism to do that. (Fund-raising contest? Rock-paper-scissors tournament?) In the absence of that, none of Mitt Romney, John Thune, Haley Barbour, or any others has an incentive to abandon the field to any other Palin alternative.

Second, and more seriously, the Republian establishment has lost legitimacy among Republican voters. Indeed, the establishment has delegitimized itself. The entire Republican message since the end of the Bush years has been that Republicans have lost their way. They were corrupted by power, they went Washington, they lost their conservative purity. This has been a highly effective method for suturing off the party from the failure of the Bush years -- indeed, it has allowed Republicans to separate themselves from Bush while advocating essentially the same policies.

But the downside is that it's strengthened Republican tactical radicalism -- the notion that Republicans can only lose when they move too far to the center. Indeed, almost any right-wing challenger can create a heroic narrative that the establishment, with its let's-consider-the-general-election-polls message, cannot answer. That's why a series of anti-establishment primary challengers has won. A huge portion of the Republican base believes that the establishment's message that excessively conservative candidates run a risk of losing is not only the opposite of the truth, it is the mark of a kind of corruption.

The good news for the establishment is that Palin is either uninterested in running or so wildly incompetent at basic campaign organization that she'll quite likely implode. But if she does manage to run, and can somehow run a halfway competent campaign, it's hard to see the answer.