Americans adore irresponsible, flashy celebrities. But they do not vote for them. Michael Jackson’s funeral crashed the Internet. Had he ever tried to run for dog-catcher, it would have been a very different story.
Sarah Palin is about to experience the weight of this rule.
Between her speeches and her book deal, she can reasonably hope to earn $10 million over the next two years. She’ll fly in private jets, sleep in sumptuous hotel suites, receive rhapsodic applause.
Yet there will be no escaping another story line. Faced with exasperating criticism and the accumulating cares of public office—she quit to cash in. Her admirers can excuse anything, but to the much larger audience of non-admirers, Palin will look a lot like those CEOs who wrecked their banks and the national economy while accepting huge bonuses for themselves. John McCain’s slogan in 2008 was "Country First." Palin’s in 2012? "I seen my opportunities, and I took 'em."
So who remains? Mark Sanford, the second choice of many conservatives, just committed the season’s most spectacular political suicide. Mike Huckabee, the favorite of the party’s large eveangelical voting bloc, remains unacceptable to the Republican Party’s money element. Republicans can boast a clutch of intelligent, capable governors and ex-governors: Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Bobby Jindal, and Tim Pawlenty.
Yet unlike Democrats, Republicans rarely reach into their second tier for national leadership. Almost every Republican presidential candidate since World War II was already famous eight years before winning the nomination. The one exception, George W. Bush, may not have been well-known himself, but carried a famous name.
The GOP is a party of orderly succession. Ronald Reagan finishes second in 1976, wins in 1980. George H.W. Bush finishes second in 1980, wins in 1988. Bob Dole finishes second in 1988, wins in 1996. John McCain finishes second in 2000, wins in 2008.
This succession will be complicated in 2012 by the unusual fact that two men can plausibly claim to have finished second in 2008: Mitt Romney got the second most votes; Mike Huckabee the second most delegates. Romney has money, organization, and discipline. Huckabee has a television show and charm.
So how to choose? Republicans have to worry that Huckabee—like Palin—cannot win a national election, even under the most favorable circumstances. Romney? That’s a more open question. There are two Romneys: the pragmatic, results-oriented candidate who got himself elected Republican governor of Massachusetts—and the phoney hyper-ideological ex-candidate who addressed the Republican convention in St. Paul in 2008:
"For decades, the Washington sun has been rising in the East —Washington has been looking to the Eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and to the broadcasters from the coast.
"If America really wants change, it's time to look for the sun in the West, cause it's about to rise and shine from Arizona and Alaska!
"Last week, the Democrats talked about change. But let me ask you—what do you think Washington is right now, liberal or conservative? Is a Supreme Court liberal or conservative that awards Guantánamo terrorists with Constitution rights? It's liberal! Is a government liberal or conservative that puts the interests of the teachers union ahead of the needs of our children? It's liberal!
"Is a Congress liberal or conservative that stops nuclear power plants and offshore drilling, making us more and more dependent on Middle East tyrants? It's liberal!
Is government spending—excluding inflation—liberal or conservative if it doubles since 1980? It's liberal!"
Twenty years of Republican presidencies since 1980? Eighteen years of Republican majorities in the Senate? Twelve years of Republican majorities in the House? Seven of the nine Supreme Court appointments? Never happened! And for that matter, Massachusetts isn’t in the East either.
The big question for Republicans is: Which Romney will show up in 2012? The electable or the unelectable, the serious or the cynical, the commanding or the pandering? All Republicans have to hope that Romney brings his best self to the next election cycle—if only because after this week, we are seriously running out of alternatives.
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