As the Republican avalanche of 2010 builds — and I saw a poll the other day of a Democratic-leaning state Senate district on Long Island where the “right track” (8%)/”wrong direction” (83%) was unlike anything I had ever seen — Palin has smartly positioned herself as the champion of the conservative counter-revolution. By December, she will almost certainly be the de facto front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
It’s worth remembering that throughout most of 2007, the media chatter about the GOP field regularly included Rudy Giuliani as one of the top three contenders, and some of the sillier people at the time were already polling Giuliani and Clinton against each other. Perhaps the dream of an all-New York general election was too tempting for some people to pass up. Giuliani’s credibility as a candidate was almost entirely a creation of media outlets interested in promoting a hawkish social liberal Republican in a way similar to the conservative media’s love affair with Joe Lieberman, and it was encouraged by those national security conservatives for whom Giuliani was and is an icon. When it came to winning support from caucus-goers and voters, Giuliani had almost none. He bet everything on a strong showing in Florida among transplanted New Yorkers and lost big.
You will immediately object that Giuliani and Palin are completely different, and in most respects that’s true. Regardless, in one of the most important respects they are very much alike: pundits and journalists took Giuliani seriously as a candidate for the Republican nomination when there was absolutely no reason to do so, and now more than a few of them are doing the same thing with Palin. If Giuliani’s candidacy wasn’t viable because of his social liberalism and his, er, colorful personal life, Palin’s won’t be viable because she will be seen as unprepared, out of her depth and inexperienced, which are all of the things that Republicans have said about Obama for years and will want to use to attack him again in 2012.
An important difference in their promotions by the media is that Giuliani was promoted as a serious candidate because many journalists and pundits liked him or at least respected some of the things he had done in New York, and Palin is being built up as a contender because many journalists and pundits both fear what she represents and assume that the GOP is so far gone that she is its natural leader. They overestimate her chances to the extent that they underestimate Republicans’ instinct for self-preservation and survival. Palin may not run at all, but if she does my guess is that her campaign will flame out almost as spectacularly as his did. When it comes time to vote for a nominee for President, most of her admirers are not actually going to vote for her. Many of the people who view her favorably will prefer someone else as their nominee, and in any case many of her admirers don’t think she is qualified.
Ellis links Palin’s fortunes to the midterm results just enough that his confident prediction of Palin’s future front-runner status depends to some extent on how much of a Republican “avalanche” there really ends up being. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Palin has positioned herself as “the champion of the conservative counter-revolution.” What becomes of the so-called champion if the “counter-revolution” underperforms, falls short or otherwise does not live up to the hype? Barring a takeover of one or both houses of Congress, the midterm results will appear to be a fairly typical loss for the presidential party without much obvious significance. Given the ongoing unemployment woes, probable Republican gains of 25-30 seats will not seem all that extraordinary. Rejectionism on its own will come to be seen as insufficient, and the only reason to nominate Palin is to express unadulterated, unprincipled anti-Obama rejectionism.
Rather crucially, Ellis fails to consider the impact Huckabee could have if he chose to run again. Instead of Iowa serving as Palin’s springboard, Huckabee would suck up all of her oxygen in the caucuses, and he would continue to pull away evangelical and socially conservative voters all across the South. If Ellis is right that the GOP will not nominate a Mormon, which is a huge assumption, it isn’t obvious that Palin would be the beneficiary of Romney’s weakness. For his part, Huckabee seems appealing and congenial even to those who don’t care much for his politics, while Palin’s style grates on the nerves of everyone who doesn’t love her. He actually has vastly more credibility as a leader on social issues then she does, and he has mountains of executive experience in comparison to hers. Palin can’t outflank him by making small-town, working-class or religious appeals, because he matches her or has her beat when it comes to cultural symbolism and pseudo-populism, too.
For that matter, there are only so many evangelicals and social conservative voters to go around, and with the introduction of one or two more real contenders, such as Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty, this vote will be so divided that it could allow a Romney or someone like him to slip through. If the rules changes the RNC is contemplating prolong the process and make more primary contests relevant in determining the nomination, that will make it harder for someone like Palin or Huckabee to compete over the long haul in larger, more ideologically diverse primary electorates all across the country. While the prolonged process will prevent challengers from being wiped out early on, it could end up benefiting Romney by making religious and ideological opposition to his nomination less powerful.
P.S. It’s also telling for Palin’s actual chances that Ellis’ post is really just a roundabout way to justify a presidential campaign by Jeb Bush. Ellis probably doesn’t think Palin has a realistic chance of winning the nomination, but he evidently does want to use the fear of an improbable Palin nomination to get Republicans behind the preposterous idea of continuing the Bush presidential dynasty.