Oh Sarah, We Hardly Had The Time To Rethink You

Sarah Palin has not evolved since 2008. But a comeback--and a 2012 nomination--might not be so much of a stretch.

Can Sarah Palin make a political comeback? The question itself turns political prognosticators into Calvinists. Of course not. It's predestined. She's way too...unpopular? Well, she's not unpopular. She's way too...polarizing... (Who isn't?) A lot of these folks know she can't be president because they don't want her to be president. The truth is that no one knows when this conservative populist energy attenuates; we don't know who creates the structures to harness and exploit it. We don't know what happens if Mike Huckabee decides not to run -- we assume he will, but we don't know.
President Sarah Palin. That's an ankle-snapping stretch. But to be the GOP nominee? That's merely a strain. I think she can make a comeback. From where she comes back, I'm not sure. The truth is that Palin's threshold problem is sobriety. Americans don't think she's experienced enough to be president. Palin has displayed no evidence that she accepts this judgment. A few Randy Scheunemann epistles on her Facebook page do not convey experience. A mid-summer's dalliance with Death Panels made her look foolish, or worse. The key to a comeback is to change something about yourself, and Sarah Palin is making it too easy for us because nothing seems to need changing. If populism fuses with cultural conservatism, Palin can probably win a Republican nomination, or -- because the rules of the GOP nomination process still favor the establishment -- a spot on a third party ticket.

She's still the Panglossian archangel of the anti-intellectual strain in conservatism? She blows off evolution and asserts that humans can eat meat because animals are made of meat. Evolution might reply that if Sarah Palin didn't exist, God would have had to invent her. The conviction that she's the talisman for a vital center in American politics? Check. The ability to capture the patronizing -- and yet pornographically attentive -- focus of the establishment media? Check. The preternatural skill at making the other side feel good about making the other other side feel bad? All there.

Somehow, Palin is supposed to represent a revanchist populism that has its lineages in Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryant. Why? Because she angers the media elites. She's from Alaska. She's... Well, that's really the case. That's all there is. Put aside for the moment that Jacksonian Democracy preceded Jackson and was grounded in a technological revolution, rather than a sense of anger at banking or financial elites. Palin's resume is thin. What distinguishes her from other Alaskan politicians is not that she worked to get the state off the dole, but that she relied on the dole a little bit less. She was a pragmatist, not a conservative. Her sole claim to the Bryant-Jackson mantle is that she can ape the talking points of modern movement conservatives and do so with a twang that annoys liberals. Her hagiographer, Matthew Continetti, writes that she has not "tied her pointed criticisms of the Obama agenda and the liberal media to a larger argument about how ordinary people with common sense can rescue the American economy and revitalize American democracy. Palin has Jacksonian instincts, but she still hasn't forged her own political persuasion."

That's curious. Her "pointed criticisms" of the Obama administration aren't revolutionary. They usually begin with an out of context quote from Ronald Reagan and end with a clever allusion to the faith she has in the American people to do what's right. The reason why there is no larger argument is because no larger argument exists. Sarah Palin is as much a personal vessel as Barack Obama. Her appeal, as Continetti must recognize, is much more limited than this, even though, to him, it is quite considerable. There is absolutely no evidence that the American people are looking for a candidate whose principle attribute is her willingness to pretend to know less than she really knows.

It's limited because -- and this ain't the media's fault -- the American people don't generally think Palin belongs on stage with other presidential candidates. If that's the truth -- and that is what the polls show -- then it would behoove Palin to address that concern. The Palin Populist Persuasion is self-limiting, since it praises "common sense" over problem-solving, which necessarily requires a will to suspend common sense when it doesn't work. (Common sense, in this recession, would dictate a massive additional stimulus from the government. But that's not going to happen, for reasons of pragmatism and politics.)

For Sarah Palin to come back from somewhere, she needs to set a goal. To start with, she might immerse herself in a single issue for a few years, become an expert, and then use it to launch a broader conversation about what America ought to look like. Her policy statements to date have been, and don't believe me, just ask any smart Republican you know, treacly at best. If Palin gets smarter and more serious, if she embraces reality, then she can probably change the perception that many Americans have of her. Palin can be formidable and a real player in American politics, if she wants to. But she has so far expressed no doubt that her 2008 persona is the right persona for the future. No self-doubt. No awareness of her own humanity and imperfections. That's common sense?