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.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama, Israel, and the Arab Spring

So I watched Obama's speech on the Middle East. Many commentators seem to have focused on his comments on Israel, bluntly making it clear that the US favors a two-state solution. Nothing terribly unusual there; it's been clear for a while that will be required for a solution to this problem. He also spoke at length about the Arab Spring, and the hopes for democratic change. Again, doesn't seem very far out of the norm for a speech by an American president. Republicans, of course, attacked him for allegedly bailing on Israel. Part of this is appealing to hardline Israelis, hard of this is appealing to conservative Christians, and part of this is just a need on their part to attack Obama. More of the same.

But I haven't seen any commentary (although it's entirely possible that I missed it) on how the Arab Spring has completely changed the calculus in the Mideast, and how Obama grasps the importance of that. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has seemed intractable; both sides are dug in, neither trusts the other, and neither seems willing to compromise. But the Arab Spring has changed the debate, because it relieves a great deal of pressure on the Arab side of the equation. Corrupt Arab dictators have used Israel as a distraction; they've demagogued about Jews as a way of distracting their people from their own failings as leaders. The fact that many of them have access to oil wealth as a means of bribing their populations into complacency has, of course, been a big help.

But, as Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Some of the countries undergoing transformation in the Mideast will become stable, secure democracies. Some won't. Some may very well see one dictatorship replaced with another. The best historical precedent that I can think of is what happened in with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1989. East Germany was absorbed into West Germany, and the Central European states are free, while some in the Caucasus are not. The same will probably be the case in the Arab world; some countries will make a successful transition to democracy, some won't.

But those that do, it can be reasonably hoped, will flourish. And with that flourishing will come, again it is to be reasonably hoped, a lessening of the pressure to blame Israel and the Jews for the problems of Arabs. It won't be easy, but it's been done before.

Netanyahu and his Republicans allies don't see things this way. Hardline Israelis, at this point, just don't have a lot of faith in the ability of Arabs to become peace-loving neighbors. It's not hard to understand why they think that. But it's also not hard to understand that they can not afford to think that very much longer. Likud will be very reluctant to negotiate. And, of course, there are more than a few Jews in Israel who believe that the land is there by divine right. There are also a fair number of fundamentalist Christians and Jews in this country who agree with that. In this respect, the interests of conservative Israelis and conservatives Republicans are aligned.

Their interests are also aligned in the sense that they want to see Obama fail. In Netanyahu's ideal world, a Republican wins in 2012, and he gets to spend another few years resisting pressure from around the world to compromise on a two-state solution.

But a key difference between Netanyahu and Republicans is that Bibi isn't stupid, and he doesn't have a fallback option. If Mitt Romney doesn't become president, he'll still be a rich, comfortable American. What is at stake for Netanyahu is the survival of the state of Israel. Republicans don't mind a state of permanent war; it keeps the defense contractors happy. Israelis know that, ultimately, it is not sustainable. But right now, they are also scared that, if they give an inch, the Arabs, like Hamas, will take full advantage of their weaknesses, and destroy them. This is why the Arab Spring is so important: it provides a glimmer of hope that peace may, in fact, be a viable option. Hardline Israelis are still very skeptical of this, for very good reason. But the whole point of Obama's speech was to take that tiny flowering of hope, that smidgen of optimism, and make it grow. That is, after all, his specialty.

Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other, and they don't really trust each other. But they do respect each other. Each is a very smart man, and each is a brilliant politician. The key difference between Netanyahu and his Republican allies is that Netanyahu, in the long run, doesn't care whether or not Obama is reelected. But he does care a great deal the survival of the state of Israel, and he knows that peace is required for that. Republicans also want the survival of the state of Israel, but they also prefer a mindset that encourages Americans to be afraid of terrorists, so the Pentagon budget stays at its absurd levels. But what is most important to Republicans is delegitimizing Obama. If Obama can convince Netanyahu that he can at least make progress towards peace, he can split Likud and the Republicans. It won't be a wide split, but Obama can make it clear that their interests are not as solidly aligned as it seems they are today. Besides, Obama also knows that there are lots of American Jews - most, actually - who are liberal Democrats, and therefore agree with him. Part of the purpose of his speech was to mobilize them to be on his side. Obama has a chance of convincing Netanyahu to work with him, because Netanyahu respects Obama's political abilities. Obama's chief of staff was a Jew from Chicago. Rahm Emanuel is one of the toughest politicians in America, and he worked for Obama. Many Republicans look at Obama and see an effete liberal intellectual. Netanyahu does not make that mistake.

The possibility of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems almost impossible to achieve. But a year ago, if you had said to anyone in the world that Hosni Mubarak would be overthrown by mobs in the streets of Cairo, you would have been laughed at. And if, in 2003 you had said that a black guy with a Muslim name who was an obscure state senator in Illinois would become president of the United States in 2008, every single person in the world would have thought you were crazy.

Every single person in the world except for two: Barack Obama. And Michelle Obama.