The unpredictability and the peril would increase exponentially with Palin in the mix. This scenario might seem bizarre, but we live in bizarre times. At a moment like the present—when American politics is wildly polarized and unstable, populist fervor has gripped the right and left, and the economy continues to flatline—it’s worth contemplating how much weirder things might get in 2012, and whether that weirdness could be so extreme as to make the unthinkable thinkable.
To wit: President Palin, anyone?
On the day Palin was driving the throng into a frenzy in San Jose, Mitt Romney was in Bedminster, New Jersey, appearing at a sedate fund-raising lunch for Representative Leonard Lance. This is how Romney has spent much of 2010: tirelessly tilling the Republican fields, collecting chits and dispensing dollars from coast to coast. As of September 30, according to Politico, the former Massachusetts governor’s PAC had donated nearly $1 million to 188 candidates for the House, two dozen for the Senate, and twenty for governorships. By Election Day, his frantic schedule will have carried him to 30 states.
In a normal presidential cycle, Romney would be the clear Republican front-runner. His operation is top-notch. His PAC raked in $5.1 million in the first three quarters of the year, more than any other prospective candidate. And since he finished as runner-up to John McCain in 2008, it is, as they say, his turn—a quality that usually matters hugely in a party that has long operated in accord with the principle of primogeniture. Yet, for all of his dogged efforts, Romney has failed to solidify his status as the man to beat. A recent NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll found that his favorability among conservative voters is just 30 percent.
The reasons are myriad, but paramount among them is his role in enacting a health-care law in Massachusetts that bears a striking similarity to the controversial (and loathed on the right) federal overhaul that Democrats passed this year. Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996, argues that Obamacare in 2012 will be “what Iraq was to the Democrats last time, the defining issue and a fault line in the party”—one that may well prove as harmful to Romney as Hillary Clinton’s vote authorizing the war was to her in 2008. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, likens Romney’s history on health care to “a boat anchor attached to his leg,” which he needs to get rid of “or [his candidacy] doesn’t work.” Can he do it? “Yeah, just explain it was the crystal meth,” Norquist cracks.
Health care may be the most acute of Romney’s ailments, but it is symptomatic of a deeper malady: his uneasy fit with a party base where all of the energy is flowing toward insurgency. “Candidates like Romney have been getting killed all around the country,” says the consultant Alex Castellanos, who advised the governor in 2008. “It’s Romney who’s lost seven or eight Republican primaries—Establishment candidates who’ve been overthrown.”
Castellanos is talking about the effect of the tea party, which is all but certain to be anything but diminished by the midterm results on November 2. “That group of folks is gonna be more passionate, more energized, and more engaged,” argues Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s chief strategist in 2004. Their ire, too, may be exacerbated in the event that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell fail to sate their anti-government yearnings with dramatic cuts in spending and taxes and a repeal of Obamacare—a likely outcome given Boehner and McConnell’s insider proclivities and the president’s veto pen.
Romney will not be the only candidate given fits by the rise of the tea party. Today, there are four other potential establishmentarian candidates giving serious thought to running: Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and South Dakota senator John Thune. And all have résumés, temperaments, and/or policy positions unlikely to sit well with the tea-partyers: Barbour is a former Republican National Committee chairman and big-time corporate lobbyist; Daniels was Bush’s budget director and a longtime Beltway player; Pawlenty is an erstwhile liberal on climate change; and Thune is, well, a senator, and a milquetoasty one at that.
“All those guys, they could try and turn it up and have the fervor, but voters are gonna read through it,” says Dowd. “It’s just not authentic to them, because they’ve been part of the Washington scene or taking part in state politics, where they cut deals and made compromises—which is part of governing but lethal in this environment.”
On this reading, the tea party and its populist brethren seem likely to emerge as the new Christian right, only more powerful—not merely exercising an effective veto over any nominee but altering the underlying dynamics of the race. “There will be two simultaneous primaries: a mainstream-conservative primary and a primary in the anti-Establishment wing of the party,” says John Weaver, McCain’s guru in 2000 and the early part of his run in 2008. “And then there’ll be a playoff down the road between the winners of the two.”