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Why Sarah Palin Is Bad for the GOP

5 years ago
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To those of you already sick of Palinpalooza, I apologize. Sometimes, a columnist or blogger must yield to the inevitable. This week the political-media universe inevitably belongs to Sarah Palin, the woman whom John McCain thought was the most qualified Republican to be president after himself. Her book release has stirred up the predictable hoopla: Oprah, Barbara, front-page stories, and cable-chat-gone-wild. The early excerpts established a strong narrative: Sarah Barracuda is out for revenge. She apparently spends more energy punching down -- that is, snarking at -- McCain campaign staffers whom she blames for her poor campaign performance last year, rather than, say, laying out a plan for winning the war in Afghanistan. Her catty get-even tale has prompted the McCainiacs to strike back, essentially claiming she is out of touch with reality. This is more evidence to support my view that life doesn't change much after high school.

The sniping is good for book sales. It's also good for Sarah Palin the Celebrity. (Remember the saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity?) What I wonder is: How good -- or bad -- is this for the Republican Party?

At the moment -- and perhaps for the foreseeable future -- Palin is the most prominent GOPer in the nation. What other Republican draws more attention that her? Who else is deemed worthy of newsmagazine cover treatment? In July, right after she surprisingly resigned as Alaska governor, a silly Time cover story essentially hailed her lack of experience, noting that she "speaks to an ingrained frontier skepticism of authority." This week, a Newsweek cover package maintains that "if the Palinistas seize the GOP . . . their brand of no-prisoners partisanship sure can tie up Congress." John Boehner -- you know, the Republican leader in the House -- would kill for anyone to turn his name into a descriptive tag. Does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have one-tenth the name recognition of Palin? Potential GOP 2012 contenders -- Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty -- are, at best, moons, when compared to burning-bright Palin.

As goes Palin, so goes the Grand Old Party? Not necessarily. But the party does run the risk of being defined -- in a guilt-by-association manner -- by Palin. This week, I participated on the roundtable for ABC News' "This Week." One of my fellow panelists, David Brooks, pronounced her a "joke." Presuming Brooks is right, I noted, the Republican Party has a problem: If GOPers take a "joke" seriously, doesn't it reflect poorly on the party? Republican leaders, who fear or covet her conservative supporters, have been publicly embracing her as a serious player. On "This Week," Rudy Giuliani called her "an exciting figure in the Republican Party." He added, "There's something extra-special that Sarah Palin has in terms of reaching out to people, and my party needs that kind of excitement." Last month Pawlenty recklessly followed Palin into the fray of that GOP civil war over a special congressional election in upstate New York.

The folks leading the GOP ought to tread the Palin path with caution, for they could get caught on the wrong side of a Palin Gap. A recent Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Republicans want Palin to be a national political figure, but only 45 percent of all Americans have that same yearning. And another Gallup survey discovered that 65 percent of Republicans would seriously consider supporting Palin for president in 2012, yet only 33 percent of the general adult population would do so. (Huckabee was the GOPer who did best in this poll, with 40 percent saying they would consider him for the top job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Moreover, only 31 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters they believed Palin was qualified to be president. (Huckabee got a thumb's up in this regard from 50 percent; Romney, 49 percent, and Newt Gingrich, 44 percent.) Sixty-two percent called her unqualified. There weren't many undecided.

It's no boost to the credibility of a party if it's most well-known presidential prospect is widely regarded as unfit for that office. I do hope that next time Gallup conducts a poll involving Palin, it asks what I will now dub the "Brooks question": Do you consider Sarah Palin a joke?

There's no telling if she will run in 2012. Her political career has had a meteoric quality, but she's erratic. And her book is not helping her image beyond the faithful. Did she really do that infamous Katie Couric interview, as she and her collaborator claim, out of pity, because a McCain campaign aide told her that the CBS News anchor was plagued by low self-esteem? That's unlikely. And if true, dumb. She whines about the McCain people submitting her to bad media interviews and keeping her under wraps. None of this stuff really matters much -- except to show us what she really cares about, and it's not very high-minded.

Whether or not Palin decides to run for president, for the time being she is making herself the gravitational center of the GOP. She has energized the party's base to the point where conservative activists are cannibalistically chasing after moderates in the party. She has eclipsed the party's true captains in star power. She is the conversation. And she has demonstrated the ability to command attention whenever she raves it. For Palin, it's just one Facebook notice or tweet away.

When it comes to external political realities, the Republicans aren't doing that badly. Independent voters are getting a little nervous about the Obama presidency. (That's only natural; Obama has yet to rebuild a robust, jobs-creating economy, win the war in Afghanistan, and refurbish the troubled health care system -- and do so without any partisan bickering.) And if the economy is going to be plagued by 10-percent unemployment for the coming months, the GOPers will have a chance of winning back the House. Even if they do and say nothing.

But the GOP does have a severe brand problem -- one that's been developing for years. If it also comes to be seen as the party of the Tea Bag crowd and Sarah Palin, that could well help President Obama and the Democrats stave off an anti-incumbent wave naturally caused during an in-between election year by a lousy economy. Heading toward the 2010 elections, the Republicans are their own worst enemies. Especially if Palin is widely perceived not as a rogue Republican but the real thing.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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