In a cavernous convention hall on Sassafras Pier in Erie, Pennsylvania, five days before the election, Tom Ridge introduces Sarah Palin to 7,500 of her adoring fans, many of them holding hand-painted signs—MADAME MAVERICK, THE PUCK STOPS HERE. Palin thanks Ridge, calling him “the most popular governor, probably, ever,” and then proceeds immediately to insert her foot into her mouth. “I am thrilled to be here in the home state of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies,” she exclaims, apparently unaware that the good people of Erie, in the western part of the state, root either for the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Cleveland Indians. The crowd groans. Ridge grimaces. Palin smiles brightly and plows ahead.
Watching Palin and Ridge occupy the same stage, it’s impossible not to think of Robert Frost—you know, the road not taken. Here you have Ridge, the serious, experienced, impeccably credentialed former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security, a longtime friend of John McCain’s who occupied a place on his vice-presidential short list. Ridge’s pro-choice stance was politically problematic on the right, to be sure. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that McCain’s advisers would be calling Ridge a “diva” or a “whack job.” Or that Lawrence Eagleburger, one of the five former secretaries of State endorsing McCain, would have replied “Of course not” if he were asked if he was comfortable with Ridge’s being commander-in-chief, as he did regarding the Alaska governor last week. Or that 59 percent of voters would have felt that Ridge wasn’t up to the job of vice-president, as the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll found they do about Palin.
Counterfactual speculation of this sort will be moot, of course, should McCain somehow pull off a stunning upset on November 4. But if he doesn’t, the coulda-shoulda-wouldas will be withering and ceaseless, with Palin’s role in the defeat the subject of a furious interpretive battle between her detractors and defenders.
The contours of that battle and its outcome will be of more than academic interest. They will be central to the coming struggle for the soul of the Republican Party and to Palin’s future. Here in deep-blue Gotham, many people assume that her destiny is sealed: a one-way ticket back to Wasilla. But the truth is that Palin is likely to be a significant player on the national stage for years to come. As a galvanizing, maybe polarizing, figure in the conservative movement. As a folk hero on the talk-radio–Fox News right. And possibly, possibly, as the GOP front-runner in 2012.
That Palin in the final days of the campaign was already looking toward the next election cycle was glaringly evident—not least in some quarters inside McCain-land, where it caused no small degree of consternation. Her public (via Bill Kristol) challenging of McCain for not bringing up Barack Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright, her objection to the campaign’s withdrawal from Michigan, her insistence on giving policy speeches during the home stretch, her loud and off-message effort to defend herself regarding her $150,000 wardrobe splurge: All of it seemed focused more on playing to the base or repairing her reputation than on helping McCain to win.
For a candidate whose public image has taken the battering that Palin’s has in the past two months, focusing on the post-election horizon seems both natural and drenched in chutzpah. But Palin surely knows that many prominent figures in the conservative movement—from Morton Blackwell to Brent Bozell—see in her the potential to emerge in time as a next-generation, XX-chromosome Ronald Reagan. Indeed, on November 5, an assemblage of the movement’s leaders will take place at a private weekend home in rural Virginia to begin discussing a way forward for the GOP in the age of Obama (if he wins, that is), with Palin’s role high on the agenda.
The case for Palin as a conservative standard-bearer isn’t hard to discern. She has electrified the Republican grassroots as no candidate has in years. In their size and enthusiasm, the crowds that come to see her on the stump rival or even exceed those that greeted Obama a few years ago, when he first burst on the scene. Her charisma and performance skills, so dazzling when she made her debut in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Republican convention, were vividly on display when I saw her in Erie. Again and again, she whipped the throng into a frenzy with her barbed attacks on Obama. Her command of right-wing dog-whistle rhetoric is total. Speaking of her devotion to helping special-needs children, she seamlessly inserted a coded pro-life appeal: “John [McCain] and I have a vision of America where every innocent life counts.”
The constituency to which Palin appeals is clear and well defined: populist conservatives of all stripes and Evangelicals in particular. In their eyes, the slipups and failings that are (rightly) seen by the media and mainstream voters as signs that she is unready to be president are viewed instead as indicia of authenticity—or, just as often and more ardently, as errors forced on her, and then gleefully blown out of all proportion, by a biased liberal media. Thus her impending status as a paladin for the grassroots right: She stands as the representative victim of all the perceived unfairnesses and systematic duplicities, from MSNBC’s perfidy to acorn’s vote-stealing, of the 2008 election. As The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder puts it succinctly, “She’s easily the front-runner to become the voice of the angry Right in the Wilderness.”
Not all conservatives are so enamored of this vision, it should be said. There are those who believe that, fairly or not, McCain’s adjutants will try, and with some success, to scapegoat her for their boss’s failure. There are those who think that her appeal is too narrow to allow her to unify the various ideological strands within the party. Others maintain that the damage to her image has been so enormous that it is essentially irreparable. And still others contend that she is simply too dim to be a major figure in our national life. When I asked Times columnist David Brooks if he thought that Palin could be the Republican nominee in 2012, he said, “I don’t.” When I asked why, he answered with a chuckle, “I just don’t think the human capital is there, to put it politely.”
But Palin will have ample time to become fluent—or, at least, to achieve the appearance of fluency—on national issues. As her just-good-enough performance in the V.P. debate against Joe Biden showed, she is a quick study, more information-poor than actually dumb. (Okay, I’m being generous here, but, hey, it’s not impossible.) Provocatively, the conservative blogger Patrick Ruffini compares the rehabilitation that lies ahead of Palin to that of Howard Dean. “The party elite seemed vindicated when Dean self-destructed [in 2004],” Ruffini writes. “But a little over a year later, Dean was elected DNC chairman with surprisingly little fuss … Whatever Dean’s faults, there was a sense that the party elite had bankrupted itself by running a series of poll-tested me-too triangulators. Dean’s easy victory at the DNC was the precursor of the grassroots’ long-term victory over the elite, culminating in the evisceration of Hillary Rodham Clinton [by Obama]. Does any of this sound familiar?”
Ruffini sees the Republicans now as entering a state of warfare between the elites and the grassroots, and in casting the matter in this way, he highlights the deeper long-term issues facing the GOP. What kind of party will it morph into? And how does it approach the election in 2012? On one side of the debate are pragmatic party regulars, a category that includes most professional Republican strategists. Ask these sharpies who they believe are the likeliest nominees next time around and you hear a range of answers: Mitt Romney, Bobby Jindal, Charlie Crist, Tim Pawlenty, even Jeb Bush. But rarely do they mention Palin.
“Two thousand twelve will be a very practical election,” says one top Republican consultant. “After four years of being out in the cold, the important thing for the party will be who can beat Obama. And Palin is a loser in a general. The well she draws from is not that deep. She’ll spend a lot of time talking about what McCain should have done, and the McCain crowd will devote a goodly hunk of their lives to killing her. Plus, she will be more vetted and Bristol will be on her fourth fiancé and, well, it won’t be pretty.”
The other side of the debate, however, will be a force to be reckoned with. It will want to run a hard-core populist, anti-government, anti-Washington campaign. It will be animated by social conservatives and the Christian right, a faction that is likely to have more power in the nominating process as the GOP coalition splinters. Mike Huckabee is already positioning himself to be the leader of this cadre. He may be joined by Newt Gingrich in the hunt—and almost certainly by Palin.
In this battle, Palin might seem like the underdog, but I don’t think so. She is, right now, probably the most popular Republican in the country among the activist conservatives who play an outsize role in determining the GOP nominee. She is officially next in line in a party that has traditionally been governed by the principle of primogeniture, but she combines that advantage, as Ambinder points out, with those of being an outsider candidate. And the right-wing impresarios now swarming around her say that she will have access to all the money she will need—maybe not as much as Romney, but enough.
There is, of course, a world of difference between winning the Republican nomination and winning a general election. What the right may be doing, intentionally or not, is setting Palin on a suicide mission—positioning her to be the Barry Goldwater of 2012. The very prospect chills the heart but also gladdens it. Four more years of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin? To borrow a phrase: Bring it on.