And a Governor Shall Lead Them

Why Sarah Palin is unlikely to be the future of the Republican Party.

Sarah Palin

The future of the Republican Party will be shaped by a governor—but it’s not likely to be Sarah Palin. The twin poles of the Republican Party were on display this week. One was at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Texas. The other was on the airwaves across the country as Palin methodically went rogue.

Palin was certainly the bigger sensation. News about the meeting of Republican governors was lucky to make it to Page A13 (or, alternatively, sites like this). But the less-flashy bunch has more of what the party needs if it wants to remake its national image. At the RGA they were stressing their pragmatic, results-oriented approach to governing and ducking the chance to beat up on the president.

These are the qualities required of a majority party trying to attract suburban women, young voters, and independents.

Republicans have to look to their governors by default. Republicans in Congress have a roughly 60 percent disapproval rating. Governors also have a natural advantage because they have to actually, you know, govern, as opposed to Republicans in the House and Senate, who struggle in the minority. This means they might have actual results they can run on.

Regardless of whether a governor becomes the national standard-bearer, governors can help the brand. If Republicans can point to electoral success and progress in statehouses, it helps beat back the notion, conveyed by many Republican congressional leaders, that the party is only about obstruction—or worse, obfuscation.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin. For all of the hoopla, she is a limited politician. She’s a force among a group of conservatives, but so is Rush Limbaugh. (And even Rush couldn’t get John McCain defeated in the Republican primaries despite his best efforts.) Speculation about her political future has to be put in perspective. First, we’re a long way off. Anything can happen. Most of the 2012 landscape will be determined by what Barack Obama does. But everyone’s speculating about 2012—and Palin is being coy—so we’ll briefly join in.

Of course Palin says she’s keeping her options open about running in the future. It helps keep her speaking fees high and keeps her supporters excited. She’s shrewd. Why close off any options? Besides, she appears to be enjoying finally doing things her way after a campaign where she felt cooped up.

Her abettors in this speculation are the Democratic National Committee and the media. The DNC wants Palin to be the face of the Republican future because Democrats think she’s a clown. The media has an interest in portraying Palin as a viable political candidate because that justifies endless coverage. She’d still be worth covering if she were just a political personality, but at some point the coverage would wane. Considering her as a serious contender gives a pretext for more coverage—which is good for ratings. Just ask Oprah: Her show with Palin was Oprah’s highest-rated since 2007, when 100 members of the Osmond family appeared. (For numerologists, that’s 1 Palin = 100 Osmonds.)

But popularity has its limits. According to Pollster.com’s average, 38 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of her, while 49.2 percent view her unfavorably. When Hillary Clinton had similar (but better) numbers, Karl Rove argued that it made her a “fatally flawed” national candidate.

Palin certainly taps into frustration with the federal government, a frustration that goes beyond the “wing-nut base,” as some liberals might like to call it. She’s also anti-media and anti-smarty-pants elitists, which are also appealing qualities. But it takes more than tapping into frustration, and even channeling it, to win elections.

To win a national election, a politician needs to appeal to voters beyond her base and offer more than paeans to family and the military. Couldn’t Palin grow her support? She’s limited there, too. Since she’s no longer a governor, she’s traded away her ability to attract non-base voters by pointing to accomplishments. This is why it was so hard for Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi to answer when asked if she was qualified to be president. One of the smoothest talkers in politics, he said he didn’t know anything that “disqualified” her from office. 

Barack Obama didn’t have a lot of bread-and-butter accomplishments to point to, either. He had, in fact, less governing experience than Palin already has. So experience can be gotten around. But to win the middle-class and suburban independent voters who were attracted by Barack Obama’s promise to change the partisan ways of Washington would presumably require a softer tone. Palin shows no sign of going that route. Her most recent remarks about health care rationing may appeal to her base, but they’re full of the jargon of talk radio. It gets people heated up, sure, but it’s not the kind of language that national candidates usually use in order to court swing voters.

Then there’s the baggage. Palin already has to fight the quitter rap. The book has also created a long list of questions about her credibility. It’s not just that former McCain staffers challenge her accounts—that can be written off as the he-said/she-said that attends any campaign—Palin has credibility problems, at times, with her own version of events. These are liabilities that will be exploited not by the “lamestream media,” as she calls it, but by any opponent she would have in a Republican primary.

In the end, the Republican Party does not face a binary choice between Palin or Not Palin: There are ways to appeal to her voters and also show the qualities of day-to-day governing the Republican governors are trying to highlight. Now all the Republican Party has to do is figure out who that person is going to be.

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