The Palin Uncertainty


Ann Coulter appeared on Fox News Tuesday night to discuss the uncertainty surrounding Sarah Palin’s presidential ambitions with Laura Ingraham.  Neither of them thought much of Palin’s chances:

Judging the fortunes of political candidates from polls is a tricky business, especially those who have not formally declared yet.  Is it a sign of strength or weakness that non-candidate Sarah Palin shows up in third place behind Rick Perry and Mitt Romney?  Whatever that says about Palin, it’s probably a more significant data point for the declared candidates chugging in behind her.  Personally, I would not find the notion that I could enter the Presidential race in third place to be depressing.

At any rate, people do change their minds.  President Obama’s cratering poll numbers are significant, but it would be rather foolish to assume they’re a perfect predictor of his electoral success in 2012.  If Palin is a good presidential candidate, then formally entering the race and taking the stage at debates will move the polls in her direction.  Her official presence would expose her to a wider audience, especially as the election draws closer.  For good or ill, her public statements and campaign positions would become more important than the mythology surrounding her. 

There’s no other way to find out whether three years of media mud will stick to Palin, or whether three years of enthusiasm from her supporters will translate into votes.  My sense is that people who closely follow politics are underestimating how much the general public remains undecided about even a prominent figure like Palin.  We too easily mistake our passions, pro and con, for broad sentiment among a populace that only sees the tip of the media icebergs we swim between. 

Much of the poll input about Palin, both good and bad, is coming from folks who barely remember her from the 2008 campaign, or mostly think of her as a television personality.  Someone who says they would love to vote for her as President might be thinking fondly of an episode from Sarah Palin’s Alaska, while someone who declares they would never vote for her might be thinking of a nasty joke from a late-night comedian.  That all changes if she becomes an official candidate and enters the headlines of the 2012 race, just as it’s changing for Rick Perry right now.  He had a high profile as well, and has attracted both new supporters and new critics since he emerged from the roiling mists of speculation.

Likewise, commentators and their ardent readers might be projecting their own impatience onto a larger public that really doesn’t care if a big-name candidate enters the race in October or November.  The maddening “tease” Coulter and Ingraham complained about will retroactively become signs of Palin’s intentions that should have been obvious all along.  That’s how “conventional wisdom” is formed. 

My biggest gripes about Palin’s long decision-making process are personal and institutional.  On a personal level, I cheerfully admit to wanting every candidate to declare early and stay in the race a long time, because they give me stuff to write about.  I admire those like Herman Cain who got into the race early, and put all their cards right on the table.  Institutionally, I worry that a late entry followed by victory will form a new conventional wisdom for 2016 and beyond, in which the early primary season is dismissed as a forlorn bullpen for hopeless wannabes.  I think voters are well-served by long and vigorous primaries.

I would point out a lesson I learned the hard way: prominent people who decide not to run for President want to control the precise moment in which they convey their intentions.  They want to build the maximum impact for their endorsements… or refusal to endorse anyone, which can also be a powerful statement.  They view the possibility that they could yet enter the race as a potent force for shaping the political conversation.  If those are factors in Palin’s decision to stretch out her “tease,” then she’s hardly unique.

In the wake of the conversation between Coulter and Ingraham, many bloggers echoed Coulter by expressing their exasperation with fans who can’t tolerate any criticism of Palin.  I suspect Palin herself would strongly maintain that the issues at hand are far larger than any single person, and would not be happy with those who say they will only participate in the 2012 elections if they can vote for her.  She also wouldn’t want the issues she cares about to be evaluated solely through personal admiration or disdain for her.  Of all the many things Palin has been, or aspired to be, I’ve never heard her express a desire to become an ingredient in an ideological litmus test.  She puts too much effort into writing and speaking eloquently, about matters of great substance, to be treated that way.

Why are so many Palin fans dedicated to her, and why do they perceive so much of the criticism leveled at her from sources on the Right as unfair?  Because she’s always out in front.  She took a mountain of abuse in 2008, and then cheerfully began climbing the even bigger mountain behind it.  Hers is often the first voice raised in response to attacks against conservatives, the Tea Party, and middle-class Americans… especially against the really vicious attacks.  And when Palin herself is the target, as in the wake of the Tucson atrocity, too many conservative and Republican “leaders” are much too slow to speak up for her. 

Look at her response to James Hoffa’s vile remarks on Labor Day, and Barack Obama’s agreeable silence afterward.  She didn’t just run to a camera and express her outrage.  She wrote a very detailed, thoughtful response, as constructive as it was fiery, and posted it in the wee hours of the morning.  Did you see anything like that from the declared GOP presidential candidates?  Why not?

Maybe Palin won’t run, and never seriously planned to.  Maybe she will, but she’s taking a long time to make her announcement.  She always said she wanted to see if there’s another candidate she could support.  Tonight will be the first big debate appearance of Rick Perry, the last big name to join the race.  He had a pretty spectacular campaign launch.  Is it so unreasonable for Palin to wait a bit longer and see how he fares, once his campaign reaches orbit?  If she’s a non-factor, why are so many people – pro and con – being so unreasonable about her?

If Palin doesn’t run, the vast majority of her supporters will look to the other candidates.  If those candidates think they’ve been left with insufficient time to rally voters to their cause, because Palin waited a few extra months to announce she wouldn’t enter the race, then Sarah Palin isn’t the one who has a problem worthy of serious criticism.