Sunday, November 9, 2008

1463 days of night

A vanquished Sarah Palin returned to her home state of Alaska this week, after seventy days of campaigning in virtually all forty-eight of the Lower 48 to be the next vice president.

The beleaguered governor of the Last Frontier was greeted by well wishers when she landed in Anchorage, and while 52% of the country may be happy she has left, they would be foolish to think she is gone for good. 

That's right: don't think you've seen the last of Sarah Palin. She will run for the Republican nomination for president, she will likely win, and she will give President Obama a run for his (substantial) money, if not win outright. [Caveat: I'm not always right when I predict the future presidential aspirations of female politicians, but my premise is still sound.]

What I'm about to say should not be misconstrued as an endorsement for Governor Palin's future plans—there is no small amount of trepidation over what I am predicting here. It is simply a dispassionate look at the woman, her party, and how things tend to work with those on that site of their aisle and their supporters.

Simply put, she will be back. Forget what you think you know about her and look at her for who she is, and it will be easy to see. The once-obscure governor of one of America's two "freak states" (the other being Hawaii) won the jackpot of political lotteries this summer when she was thrust upon the national stage. And now, despite her defeat (oh, by the way, running mate John McCain also lost) she still retains a great deal of that capital.

And that, dear readers, may be enough for her to clinch the GOP nomination in 2012. 

Oh, the horror, my Democratic friends are saying. There's no way that's possible! Everyone knows what an intellectual lightweight she is. Everybody knows what a cynical choice this vacuous politician was. There's no way on God's green earth that Republicans would choose Sarah Palin when they've got... when they've got... just who the heck do they have? 

And therein lies the rub. Republican nominations, like their Democratic counterparts, are not (for the most part) determined by moderate, middle-of-the-road Americans just to the right of center who wish to balance the wishes and desire of all the people. Rather, they are partisans who often loathe the other side, and many of them are one-issue voters who will do whatever they can to make sure a sympathetic politician becomes the nominee. 

We democrats are no better. For our party this year, it was an anti-war candidate (Obama). For Republicans, it was a stay-the-courser who they thought might have wider appeal and thus overcome the high degree of hatred and distrust so many Americans harbor toward President Bush. 

But for the many Republicans who did not support the McCain candidacy (and there were so many), it was pro-life churchgoer Sarah Palin who brought them to the polls. 

And see, this is the stuff most Democrats do not get. They see in Palin a mindless zealot who is out of her league and make foolish claims about why she was picked, demonstrating the very fact that they do not understand Sarah Palin's appeal. And that is why they will be blindsided in 2012 when she not only wins the nomination, but actual makes a credible run for the White House against President Obama. And it's already started: check out the "Palin 2012" bumper sticker with the "You can keep the change" motto that popped up the day after McCain-Palin went down to defeat (yes, they're really on sale already):

If you think that McCain chose Palin primarily so she would take pro-Hillary votes (especially women's votes) away from Obama, then you have no clue what's up. Sarah Palin was chosen because she was the perfect combination of two things: she was a maverick (or so it seemed to McCain) who could appeal to the socially conservative (mostly churchgoing) supporters of the GOP. 

You see, these conservatives hate McCain. They still do, even though most of them ended up voting for him. They think he doesn't care about "values" issues like ending abortion, promoting prayer in school, stopping gay marriage, blocking gays in the military, or fretting over gays anything, plus a bunch of other issues. Even non-religious Republicans thought he had betrayed the party with campaign finance reform such as the McCain-Feingold Act that helped curb the GOP's financial advantage. The fact that the so-called "mainstream media" seemed to love him so much in 2000 simply confirmed their suspicions. 

McCain won because the self-described "values voters" were divided amongst several Republican candidates. There was Reverend Governor Huckabee of Arkansas (who lacked national and international experience), Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (who was a cultist Mormon who flirted a bit too much with socialist ideas like universal health care), Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York (who seemed to have little appeal beyond his role in 9/11 and was way too liberal on social issues), and former senator and "Law & Order" actor Fred Thompson (the savior who ended up putting everyone to sleep). While single-issue voters and right-wing zealots battled it out over which of them to pick, McCain stole the nomination with the help of the moderates in the party who are usually outnumbered

So the Republicans were faced with the real possibility of fighting for someone they personally disliked but who was probably the most electable from their party. Thus, despite McCain winning his party's nomination, there was a real danger that much of his party would stay home or, at the very least, not get too enthusiastic about their GOTV (get out the vote) drives. He had to do something.

Enter Sarah Palin. She was all the things the anti-McCain crowd wanted, plus she was photogenic. Rush Limbaugh and other mouthpieces of the Republican right were busy talking her up as McCain's people were preparing his short list. But for McCain, she also had something that genuinely appealed to him: she seemed to be willing to go against her own party when she felt her party was wrong. In other words: Like him, she was mavericky. (We can argue about whether that perception was right, but what it comes down to is that McCain felt it to be true.)

So both sides got what they wanted: McCain got a fellow maverick who could shake and stir things up when they needed to be shaken and stirred; the conservatives got a fellow traveler who would make sure what was near and dear to them stayed on the McCain Administration radar. Everybody happy! 

[Again, this was not about Palin being a woman, though it didn't hurt things that she was a looker. McCain could have chosen several prominent female Republicans who were closer to him ideologically, such as Christine Todd Whitman, but he needed someone to appeal to the right.]

And believe it or not, it worked. Despite the nation being in the midst of an unpopular war started by a wildly unpopular president with rock-bottom approval numbers who was in McCain's own party, the GOP ticket got nearly half of the popular vote—46%. In this record-breaking election (whose total voters managed to top the record-shattering election of 2004), it was that Republican GOTV drive—galvanized by Sarah Palin—that got McCain as close as he did and denied Obama a landslide

Without Palin to galvanize the right, we would have seen McCain's percentage closer to Mondale's in 1984, as the Republican GOTV campaign would have sputtered and many self-described conservatives and Republicans would have stayed home or even voted for Obama (as about one-fifth apparently did). 

Just what is that appeal that Palin has? To understand that you need to know what a RINO is. It stands for "Republican in name only" and it refers to the Big Tent Republicans that are not welcome by those who don't like the idea of a Big Tent of ideas. That is, a RINO is a Republican who is pro-choice, believes global warming is really happening and is likely manmade (at lest partly), supports gay rights, doesn't support prayer in schools or other issues that embed Judeo-Christian theology in a prominent place in the public sphere, or is involved in some other transgression against "family values." 

Certain RINOs are tolerated. Huckabee, after all, is a Protestant clergyman, so he gets a pass for his socialistic notions of wealth redistribution aimed at helping the poor (the man reads his Bible!). The aforementioned Christine Todd Whitman, however, would not. Nor does pro-choice California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

So when it comes to RINOs, Sarah Palin is about as far away as you can get. Sure, she has done mavericky things that the Republican establishment might not like, but it is crystal clear that she gets it on pro-life issues, which is the single-biggest values voter issue there is. 

This goes beyond Palin and her husband pushing their pregnant teenage daughter to get married and have the kid. Anybody can do that (and many do, in fact). Palin's absolute credibility on this issue stems from her and her husband's decision not to get an abortion when they discovered they had a child with Down syndrome. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is walking the walk when so many other politicos just talk the talk. And for that alone, Governor Palin is a veritable hero to the pro-life values voters. 

One problem on my side of the aisle is that there are too many people who simply dismiss the pro-life issue as religious zealotry, which is not only strategically foolish, it is borders on being offensive. 

Don't get me wrong, I hate terms thrown out by the pro-life leadership like "pro-abortion," as if any substantial number of people actually thinks abortion is a great thing. Even to the pro-choice movement, it is almost always not a good thing to have to choose.  

However, the pro-life movement's driving force is the fact that each and every abortion is the ending of a human life (whether you consider it a current or future human life) by killing it. It's not a pleasant thing to think of in those terms, but that's exactly the point of the pro-lifers: abortion is murder. 

President Clinton was a Democratic leader who understood what troubled "values voters" on this issue, but he also believes that criminalizing or banning abortion does not eliminate it and often ends up causing more problems of its own. Hence his famous pledge to make abortion safe, legal, and rare, which his wife echoed as she made her own run for president. This is a position I have supported: prevent unwanted pregnancy from happening, realistically help those with an unwanted pregnancy to seek an option other than abortion wherever possible, but keep it safe and legal for those women who—for whatever reason—simply feel that abortion is what they must do. Yes, it's a morally precarious position, but it addresses my pragmatic concerns. 

Sarah Palin would not agree with me on the last part, but she is no hypocrite. She is saying women who get pregnant should live with the consequences since this is a human life we're talking about, and she applies that in her own life as well. How easy would it have been to go to a clinic and end the pregnancy that was sure to produce a Down syndrome-affected child that would likely bring serious inconvenience, difficulty, and pain to her family's lives! But she didn't, and that's why the right loves her. Present tense. 

But of course, the rest of America is afraid of her for other reasons. Some are related to her faith: they fear that she, like a number of other Republicans, are trying to shove their own version of Christianity (and not Barack Obama's) down America's throat. But a lot of the fear people had was that the chief executive from America's fourth least populous state was simply not ready to take power if 72-year-old cancer survivor John McCain were to die before his term was up. According to Fox News exit polls, 66% thought Joe Biden was qualified to step in, but for Sarah Palin the number was in the high 30s. 

And so for the next thousand days or so, Sarah Palin is going to be remedying that very problem. She will be talking with advisors, practicing in the mirror, and reading up on whatever she can get her hands on so that she is up to snuff on the major international issues of the day over the course of Obama's first term. Though "anonymous" McCain staffers have said she thought Africa is a country and not a continent, she is a smart enough person to be able to cram for the foreign policy and economics exam she will be forced to take four years from now.

As for that claim about Africa, if it comes from anonymous sources, you should take its veracity with a grain of salt. Like Al Gore claiming to have invented the Internet, Clinton White House staffers trashing the White House before Bush took over, etc., it might turn out not to be true. I tend to believe reports that McCain's people and Palin's people stopped getting along, and I have no doubt that some McCain people see folks like Palin as the bane of their party, which would provide the motive for McCain-associated vampires to smear Palin in order to nip in the bud her rise to the top of the list of 2012 presidential contenders. Not that McCain himself plans on running again. He's old now, and that's not expected to change in the next four years.  

So to sum up, Sarah Palin is a hero to some of the most active Republicans, she will spend the next several years schooling herself so that she's ready for Katie Couric's questions (if Katie herself is still around in 2012), and she will be the default frontrunner at least until anyone actually votes. 

For many who have been VP or a VP candidate, it's almost irresistible to make that leap to the presidency. John Edwards tried it this year, Al Gore in 2000, Mondale in 1984, etc. In recent times, Cheney seems an exception.

They say that a year is forever in politics and four years is an eternity, so everything I say now could blow up in my face by late 2011. Dan Quayle, after all, one of those moths to the flame whose taste of the vice presidency made him long to be president, came in eighth on a list of contenders for the 2000 Republican nomination, at which point he dropped out. That could be Sarah Palin's fate, especially if the Africa stuff sticks to her like the the legendary potatoe [sic] did to Quayle.

On the other hand, if Sarah Palin dazzles everyone with a performance that starkly contrasts with that of the deer-in-the-headlights neophyte that the world saw in her 2008 television interviews, then she will be a viable candidate.  

UPDATE (Saturday, November 15, 2008): This Washington Post article—"Five Myths About an Election of Mythic Proportions"—agrees with much of what I wrote about Palin and McCain.

[Above: This picture doesn't actually belong here (it's a still from "30 Days of Night," a vampire flick about an army of the undead who invade Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost community in the United States, where they take advantage of the month or so of continuous night so they can wreak havoc on the local population by feeding off them one by one). Or does it? Maybe it's a metaphor on how political operatives are a bunch of soulless bloodsuckers who will turn on you at a moment's notice. Or maybe the pic just looks cool while serving as a reminder of that movie so that the photo of Palin arriving at Anchorage International Airport up at the top will finally make sense, and you'll have a little epiphany where you go, "Ah, that's what the title of this post is referring to!" And stop ending your sentences with a preposition; it makes you look uneducated.]

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