Thursday, July 10, 2014

The GOP's Palin Problem

Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK)
Sarah Palin is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating figures in American politics.  Hillary Clinton, John Boehner, Barack Obama, and Chris Christie-you can figure out what they want, even if their actions are occasionally enigmatic.  They all want to move up to the next position-they are ambitious, they have their eyes on the prize whether it’s the White House, the Speakership, or the legacy that can be crafted with those positions.

Not so to the former Alaska governor.  Sarah Palin is, like those other figures, extremely ambitious-she’s constantly on the prowl for where she can make an impact, cause some havoc, and get all “maverick-y.”  And yet, she seems to have no interest in the White House or returning to elected office.  For all of her conversations about taking back the country and the many (MANY) candidates she has endorsed or issued an opinion on in the past few years, Ms. Palin has never offered up herself as a candidate for office.

This isn’t, as some like to snipe, because she would have no chance.  Particularly in 2012, when the Republicans were riding high from the 2010 midterms and hatred for the ACA was high, Palin would have been a major breath of fresh air in the GOP Primary against a field of candidates that all seemed kind of like, well, losers.  Palin also would have been a compelling candidate for the Senate this year in Alaska, and is the only woman with a serious chance of being a presidential nominee AND a Republican in 2016.

Some have correctly argued that Palin the candidate wouldn’t be as successful as Palin the commentator.  She would be forced to take a series of positions that wouldn’t measure well in swing states like Virginia and Ohio in order to win the primary, and she’s not particularly well-liked with the general populace.  But there’s something bizarre about the way that she doesn’t seem to want to fully embrace the Rush Limbaugh-style pulpit that awaited her in 2010.

I said at the time that I thought she had damaged her political capital too much to win a general election as president, but that she would be a gold mine for FOX News.  Bump Greta van Sustern from her position on the lineup, and sign Palin with an 8-figure salary.  She was at the height of her political power at the time, and quite frankly in this age of television, she may well have had two years worth of free commercials to launch a run in 2012 for the nomination.  It was a win-win for the former sportscaster, who knows presentation better than most anyone else in American politics, and can cater to an audience.

But Palin stayed on the sidelines, only staying on as a FOX News contributor, and though she now floats the idea of a talk show, the power that came with that talk show has slipped.  While she still demands crowds and attention, she’s not the golden child of the GOP anymore.  Ted Cruz, in particular, has replaced her as both a rabble-rouser and (with a Senate seat to back him up) someone with actionable power.  One would think that Palin’s fall from her popularity would be a good thing for the GOP, because her occasional sporadic attacks against the Republicans, forcing them to go to the right, hurt their chances in places like Delaware in 2010.

The GOP, though, is learning this week that they may be wrong, because Sarah Palin did the unthinkable for someone who can still command front pages across the country if she is bold enough: she called for the impeachment of the president.  Congressional Republicans have done almost everything possible to not rock the boat this year.  Immigration reform isn’t just dead because Eric Cantor lost his primary-it’s dead because the GOP doesn’t want any issue that is popular with the Democrats to theoretically catch on with the electorate.  People have noted that this midterm election has yet to have a defining issue, and while the economy and the ACA could rise to the forefront if unemployment rates continue to shift or insurance premiums go up, right now the only issue is the low approval ratings of the president.

That would change if people like Sarah Palin continue on the warpath toward impeachment trials for the President.  It is deeply questionable whether John Boehner would consider such an incredible risk considering that A) he already said that he doesn’t want to impeach the president and B) the plus side to impeachment trials, trying to avoid primaries, is negated by the fact that most primaries for the year are done.  However, if Palin manages to get some traction with this movement, it would be a major problem for the GOP.

That’s because GOP congressmen would have to go on record stating whether or not they were in favor of impeachment.  GOP congressmen and senators would run the risk of ticking off their most conservative base if they said no they were not in favor, potentially putting them in danger of primaries in 2016 from their right, but they also would have a big issue if they said yes.  Despite the low approval ratings of the president, the American people don’t want an impeachment trial.  In 1998, when the President had much clearer and easier to define sins to be impeached for, the American people were royally against removing Bill Clinton from office.   One of the smartest things Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats did in 2006-07 was nip in the bud any talks of impeaching President Bush.  No one wants the president removed from office for anything other than a clear, easily-defined abuse of power.  President Obama has yet to exhibit a Richard Nixon/Watergate style offense, so the public would quickly turn on the Republicans.

This would be particularly pertinent in the Midterms, as demographic groups (particularly African-Americans) who don’t consistently vote in off-year elections would turn out in droves to defend the President in the midst of impeachment rumors.  From a purely selfish reason, probably no one wants an impeachment trial more than people like Mary Landrieu, Michelle Nunn, and Vincent Shaheen, all Democrats who are trying to find some way to connect with moderate voters and still drive up their liberal base, in these three candidates cases the African-American communities of their states.  I’d go so far to say this-if impeachment talks get to the point where senators have to take a stand on impeachment positions, the Democrats will win the Senate.  The amount of voters who would normally stay on the sidelines would be great enough that Landrieu could win in November and most of the pale blue states like Colorado, Michigan, and Iowa would all quickly go to the left enough that the Republican gains wouldn’t be able to get past five.

And that’s why the GOP still has a Sarah Palin problem, six years after her campaign caused one of the biggest hits to a presidential campaign we’ve seen in modern history.  Sarah Palin is still important to the media and to a significant portion of the Republican base.  She may never again run for office, but until someone else comes along with her magnetism and appeal, what she says matters.  And what she’s saying is not good for the Republicans this November.

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