Monday, May 30, 2011

Sarah Palin's Presidential Ambitions

Will Sarah Palin run for President? That's one of the most intriguing questions in politics today.

Here's my definitive, unequivocal answer: yes and no.

Actually, that's my definitive, unequivocal answer to the question: "Does Sarah Palin want to be president?"

To understand Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions, it's important to understand two things:

1. Sarah Palin does not want the problems and headaches that come with being president of the United States. She doesn't want to have to make tough decisions. She doesn't like being held to a strict schedule. She doesn't have a lot of personal discipline.

2. Sarah Palin is really, really ambitious, and loves the fame, power, glory and, most of all, the attention that would come with being president.

Sarah Palin wants to be famous, and loves having lots of adoring fans. She would love nothing more than almost being president.

Consider how well the 2008 campaign worked out for her. She spent two months flying around the country on someone else's dime, rallying the troops, and establishing her brand. She didn't have to make a single difficult policy decision. The fact that McCain failed was largely laid at his feet. So Palin got lots of attention with very little responsibility. She would have loved being vice president. Vice presidents don't do much. Talk about a job with glory, attention and power, but very little responsibility.

Almost all politicians in a democracy - Democrat and Republican - understand that politics in a democracy is about enlightened self-interest. You have to be able to cooperate with people who disagree with you - at least occasionally - as well as compete with them. But that only applies if you want to accomplish something within the legislative system. Sarah Palin has zero interest in passing legislation. She therefore has zero interest in cooperating with people who disagree with her, and every intention of simply competing with them - or just criticizing them. She doesn't just have no interest in cooperating with Democrats who disagree with her. She also has no interest in cooperating with Republicans who disagree with her. This is unfortunate for most other establishment Washington Republican politicians, because it means that the day may come when acting in her own best self-interest means acting in a way that is contrary to the best interests of the party. Which she will do without hesitation.

The 2012 campaign presents her with a conundrum: she doesn't really want to win, but she wants all of the attention that she would get from a presidential campaign. Her ideal 2012 experience would be for her to campaign vigorously for president, and then lose in the primaries in a way that allows her to blame the Washington establishment for her failure. Her problem is that the person with the best chance of serving as her foil is Mitt Romney, who is a weak candidate.

But her solution is simplicity itself. All she has to do is be herself, because she will inspire her fans, continue to piss off Democrats of all stripes, and alienate independents and moderate Republicans. Traditional presidential campaign theory says that candidates must campaign in the primaries to win over the base, but be prepared to move to the center in the general election. But because Sarah Palin has no interest in winning the general election, she has no interest in preparing to move to the center. She can do whatever she wants to stir up her base, because that's all she wants to do. If she keeps her fans' fires of devotion going, but alienates enough centrist/mainstream/moderate Republicans that she doesn't get the nomination, she still comes out ahead. If she does ultimately get the nomination, she can continue to inspire her most loyal followers without worrying about convincing any moderates or Democrats to vote for her, because she ultimately doesn't really want to be elected president. We're talking about a woman who would love nothing more than to have yet more reasons to claim being a martyr.

Sarah Palin doesn't even really care whether or not the GOP wins the presidential election. She might even prefer Obama winning a second term, because it gives her a perfect foil. If Romney is elected, she can stay on the sidelines and be critical of him if she doesn't consider him conservative enough. But eventually most Republicans would get tired of her. But if Obama wins, she can keep presenting herself as channeling the base's frustrations.

What's wonderfully, deliciously ironic about this - at least from the perspective of a liberal Democrat - is that Sarah Palin is the perfect embodiment of conservative Republican capitalist ideology. She is motivated entirely by her own self-interest.

But it's also unfortunate for Sarah Palin, because, while none of those Washington Republicans are as good looking as her, many of them are smarter than her. And there are lots of them. And they have lots and lots and lots of money. Sarah Palin can keep this charade going unless, at some point, she makes a complete and utter fool of herself. At that point, the likes of Karl Rove might be able to diminish her influence on the party; they might be able to contain the damage she does in the future. But at that point, the damage to the GOP will have been done.

And Sarah Palin will have millions in the bank.

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