When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off. ~Frank Rich

The sheer silliness of this scenario is comforting. It’s as if everyone knows that an Obama-Palin match-up would be a disaster for the Republicans, but some try to think up some way to make speculation about Palin’s presidential chances seem relevant. Enter Mike Bloomberg.

A Bloomberg candidacy is a natural fit for this kind of speculation, because it is both just absurd enough and possibly the only thing that gives Palin an outside chance of winning via Heilemann’s imaginary outcome in which the Republican-majority House selects Palin as President. Journalists and pundits love the idea of a Bloomberg presidential run for a number of reasons. Many of them are irrationally attached to the idea that what this country needs is more “centrist” governance, when this is what we’ve had in abundance for decades. In practice, this means the worst and/or least popular aspects of both parties, and Bloomberg is almost the perfect embodiment of this. He is liberal enough on all the social and cultural issues that would make him unacceptable to much of conservative Middle America, but also not remotely progressive enough to justify third-party protest voting from the left. As mayor of New York, he has naturally been an ardent defender of Wall Street interests, which is exactly the opposite of what most Americans want their President to be. There is no constituency that objects to some aspect of Obama’s record that desperately yearns for more “centrism” and watered-down bipartisan, pro-corporate compromises.

As for Palin’s chances, I don’t know why anyone keeps talking about them. Like a Bloomberg run, a Palin presidential campaign in the general election is the sort of thing that journalists and pundits would love to see for the same reason that many NASCAR fans watch those interminable, dull races: they are holding out hope for a spectacular, destructive multi-car pile-up. Imagine how terribly earnest and serious an Obama-Daniels competition would be. That would be no fun at all. It’s much more fun to imagine one of the major parties consciously deciding to destroy itself, which is what a Palin nomination would be for the GOP. It’s been a generation since a major presidential candidate flamed out in truly awe-inspiring fashion, and many of today’s political observers are hoping that Palin can be their generation’s political Hindenburg.

In the highly improbable event that Palin wins the nomination, she would go on to lose at least 35 or 40 states in a two-way contest. The outcome of a three-way race wouldn’t be much better for her, as she would drive many people into Obama’s camp who would otherwise never go there. If Bloomberg did waste his time and money on an independent campaign and picked up any votes, I suspect that they would be coming from moderate Republicans horrified by Palin’s nomination but unwilling to vote for Obama. After the midterms, everyone has been offering Obama advice on recapturing “the center” and winning back independents and so on, but at least half of his work would be done for him if Palin became the Republican standard-bearer.

What has been interesting to see in the last couple weeks is that Palin is receiving much more respectful treatment in the mainstream press at a time when conservative media outlets are becoming more critical. Some on the right appear to be less willing to pass over her ridiculous antics in silence than they used to be. Instead of tedious justifications and loyalist excuse-making, The Weekly Standard has a review of Palin’s “reality” show that is as derisive and dismissive of Palin as anything a major conservative magazine has published about her in the last two years. The reason for this is straightforward enough: Palin was useful during the first two years of the Obama administration as a rallying point against the other party, but now the midterms are over and she has become enough of an embarrassment and liability that some of her former boosters no longer feel compelled to cover for her. Meanwhile, her detractors in the mainstream press would like nothing more than to see her run, and then crash and burn.

Update: David Boaz makes a similar observation.