Universal Translator

Monday, September 5, 2011

Gaming Out the Sarah Palin Death Spiral: Not a Bang, But a Whimper

(I know, I know . . . I shouldn't be thinking at all about the blight on our national politics that is Sarah Palin, but like a sore tooth one's tongue keeps poking I just can't stop myself.)

It's become pretty clear that Sarah Palin is a status obsessed celebrity wannabee. Almost from the moment she was picked by our country's angriest old uncle to be his backup plan, Sarah Palin has never failed to prove that her formal career as a politician is over and that she doesn't regret that for a moment. After John McCain gave her the opportunity to try her schtick out on the national stage and she discovered that she could make people like National Review's Rich Lowry see starbursts, Palin lost no time chucking the governorship of her "much beloved" Alaska so that she could hang out with the cool kidz on the national circuit.

But not because she wants to be a politician on the national stage; she just wants to be on the national stage, full stop.

 I've written elsewhere that "if asked to choose between being the next President of the United States or the next Oprah Winfrey, [Palin would] go Oprah without hesitating," and I still think that's right. The problem for Palin is that other than being a politician, she has no reason to be on the national stage. Her short-lived "reality show" put paid to that idea, and she is no longer getting the love from Roger Ailes that once subsidized what many assumed would be her new career in the media. So for a long time I figured that Sarah Palin would run for president in 2012 -- not because she wants the job, but because it is the only way she can keep what she does want: the national spotlight focused on her.
Palin can't do what Doughy Newt Gingrich did: crank out a couple of books, get paid speaking gigs as a "public intellectual," and appear regularly on the Sunday Shows. Palin has proven time and again that she hasn't an idea in her silly head, so nobody is going to take her seriously if she were to publish anything other than another self-congratulatory biography. And she certainly can't be seen fielding "gotcha" quesions like "what newspapers do you read?" or "what did you take away from what you saw today [about Paul Revere]?"

. . . . Which means that if Palin wants to continue raking in $$ as a semi-celebrity she has to persuade people that she is still a threat to enter the race. Because Newt could keep himself in the public eye it was easy to persuade people that he was always a threat to enter and so he never had to; Palin can't do that, so she will amost certainly have to run.
Now, I also was fairly certain that after Palin did get into the race she would lose handily, and that she probably had figured that out too. Palin is a dim bulb, but she proved - at least in Alaskan politics - to be a shrewd politician, and she can read polls just as easily as I do. The latest polls have her not only trailing badly behind the front-running announced candidates, but also show that the vast majority of Americans - including 71% of all Republicans - want her to stay out of the race.

Still, like I said, I just couldn't see how Palin can keep her celebrity status and not run. So I've been looking forward to the moment when she buckles to the inevitable and announces a candidacy she knows to be doomed from the start. Since Sarah Palin obviously isn't capable of a Second Act, I have been anticipating a nationally televised embarassment that would finally and permanently drive her back to the dark watches from whence she skulked. Public humiliation followed by banishment from polite society: now that's American politics.

Unfortunately, I'm beginning to think I won't get that after all. For all the time she spent this summer riding around in a bus and rewriting American History (rewriting history quite literally; after a mangled recitation regarding Paul Revere was captured on camera and became a viral internet sensation, Palin's supporters started editing Wikipedia's Paul Revere entry so that it would comport with the gibberish Palin had spouted), it looks increasingly likely that Palin will not, in fact, run for President.

Just two days ago, for example, Palin gave a speech in Iowa where she disappointed – according to Politico at least – about 2,000 diehard Tea Party supporters by refusing to declare her candidacy.  More significantly, there has been no indication that Palin has taken any of the steps necessary to get her name on the nomination ballots of the 50 states.  Now I suppose it is possible that Palin is hubristic enough to think the GOP faithful might decide to just hand her the nomination if only she keeps shadowing actual political events the way she shadowed the Ames Straw Poll the other week, but this seems unlikely.

No, if I had to guess now I’d wager that Palin finally has acknowledged to herself that there isn’t a chance in hell she could get the Republican nomination if she were to run, and that she would damage beyond repair her reputation with the Faithful if she were to run and lose.  Few people follow a Messiah after the Messiah has been shown to be merely human.  But I also think that Sarah Palin has probably realized that – whether she likes it or not – politics remains the only way for her to maintain her coveted status as a D-list celebrity. 

So I think that what we are seeing now is Palin’s attempt to maneuver herself into becoming a Republican kingmaker.  My sense is that Palin figures she can control a large enough bloc of the diehard GOP Teabaggers such that anyone seeking the Republican crown will be forced to genuflect before her.  That would certainly explain the speech she did give in Iowa, in which she belittled Republican candidates who she claimed raise mammoth amounts of campaign cash in exchange for future political favors.  As Steve M. so helpfully translated for us, what Palin was really saying with that speech is that “I’m too virtuous to become the GOP nominee!”  And what she hopes is that her followers will nod along with this idea too, and then take their cue as to who should get the nomination from virtuous Sister Sarah.

To her credit, this isn’t a terribly bad plan in that it would result in Palin getting what she really wants.  If she could pull it off, she’d continue to be adored by a vocal if not particularly large part of the country.  She’d continue to command huge speaking fees (and other perks, like luxurious travel arrangements).  She’d have enough power within the party to demand others kowtow to her (which you just know she’s gotta love).  And – best of all! – since she’d be a kingmaker and not a candidate she’d never have to appear in front of any audience that doesn’t already worship her.  It’s perfect!

But it is also doomed.   Because other than that sad group of people like Rich Lowry who still see starbursts when she hauls her SexyLibrarian/MILF/MamaGrizzly™ carcass before a camera, Palin has no ability to connect with or persuade others that she is anything but a mean-spirited, vituperative airhead.  Which means that unlike, say, Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or even Grover Norquist – all of whom have real-life connections and formal organizations whose muscle they can command – all Palin has to command is the power over a small group of people that she personally wields by force of her personality alone.  And most of these people won’t be routinely exposed  to her and thus kept in her thrall, because unlike all the other kingmakers who direct real political muscle Sarah Palin doesn’t have a media megaphone of her own and cannot risk putting herself on TeeVee unscripted.

So what I imagine we’ll see now is a slow turning away from Sister Sarah.  Sure, maybe for next year’s election the eventual nominee will make an effort to obtain her seal of approval, but Palin’s ability to continue to influence politics would seem to be entering a permanent decline.  Which means we shouldn’t expect to see any candidates sucking up to Sarah in any future elections.  With the possible exception of some frantic last minute outbursts born from desperation as her star dies away, I am beginning to think that Sarah Palin – unbelievably enough - will simply fade gently from our public consciousness.  She may have stretched her fifteen minutes of fame into three years, but I just don’t see a viable way for her to extend it much longer.

All of which leaves me feeling a little cheated.  I was looking forward to an orgy of schadenfreude going into the 2012 campaign season, and now I’ll have to settle for watching the Wicked Witch slowly melt.  I can’t say that I’ll be any less happy about the outcome, but after three years of this hickster being foisted on us I feel like I've paid the price for a ticket to a spectacle that now I won’t have a chance to see. 

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