Sarah Palin is the bright red thread in the dull grey fabric of the Republican Party. She is charismatic, quirky, melodramatic, and fervently anti-choice, anti-gay, and anti-Obama. But there's one thing she'll never be—the GOP nominee for President in 2012.
Palin has the most intense grassroots base of any potential candidate, in the true-believing core of the party. And that's worth quite a lot. But in Congress and in state houses across the country, Republicans worry that she's unelectable, and could take them down to defeat with her. She says she may campaign for conservative Democrats next year; she'll have plenty of time since a host of Republican hopefuls have announced that they don't want her help.
Why? Her stumbling exit from the Alaska governor's office reinforced an all but indelible impression of incoherence and incompetence. A new CBS poll shows that only 22 percent of Americans say Palin has the capacity to be president. Only 33 percent of Republicans say she does. This is even bleaker than the verdict rendered before the 2008 election, when an anemic 37 percent of voters thought Palin was up to the job. As former Reagan speechmeister Peggy Noonan acidly observed in The Wall Street Journal, Palin makes Republicans look like the "stupid party."
So Palin's fundamental problem isn't the mainstream media, it's the mainstream electorate. Paradoxically, according to the CBS poll, many Americans see Palin as she sees herself—a victim of a media mauling. But that's largely a reaction to the blogosphere's wave of unsubstantiated allegations about her family's personal lives. The penumbra of sympathy doesn't extend to her qualifications for the presidency.
Her only chance for a doomed nomination is an insurgent campaign against the GOP establishment in a fractured field of candidates. Barry Goldwater did it in 1964. The circumstances are even similar. His legions, too, were fired by a sense of grievance against "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators," a phrase that elicited a deafening roar from Goldwater's convention floor. The party establishment, convinced that the election was unwinnable anyway, ultimately resigned itself to defeat.
Palin could raise tens of millions of dollars from the grassroots. But that won't be enough. Even Obama needed a massive influx of high dollar contributions to compete successfully. It's nearly certain that the GOP's big money poobahs won't fund a Palin race, not least because they fear that her nomination would decimate Republicans at every level.
And even if she somehow raised the money, Palin would be stymied by another obstacle. Republicans nominate by primogeniture; they pick the next person in line. So it was with Nixon in 1968, and later Reagan. So it was with both Bushes, and with Bob Dole in between. So it was with John McCain. They were each front-runners who were supposed to get the nod. Despite perilous moments in their primary campaigns—and a virtual collapse in McCain's case—they all eventually did. In presidential politics, Republicans are an orderly party; they're unlikely ever to be comfortable with the spontaneous, erratic performance of Sarah Palin.
They also have a nominee-in-waiting—Mitt Romney. The religious right has grown accustomed to his Mormonism. Some conservatives distrust his contorted conversion to their political creed, but who else have they got? South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign have become casualties of concupiscence. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal flunked his audition. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is uninspiring.
So is Romney perhaps, but he will be lavishly funded and he starts from the pole position. Even if Republicans choose to go down a road of certain defeat, Newt Gingrich would be a more likely bet than Palin. He is unacceptable to mainstream voters, but less so than Palin—and he's significantly more acceptable to party leaders and fundraisers.
Conceivably, Palin could exploit the relative advantage of her low expectations. What if she went on "Meet the Press" and turned in an able, if not stellar, performance? Some veterans of the McCain campaign say she's all but unbriefable, but it seems worth a try.
Otherwise, she looks increasingly like a reincarnation of Dan Quayle. Her image may already be stuck in amber—or Arctic ice—leaving her beyond the pale for the vast majority of voters. She may rush onto the lucrative lecture circuit, make a run for 2012, excite her base and excoriate the commentators. I strongly favor her nomination. But she's not next in the Republican order, and she lacks the skill or discipline required to cut in line.
After all the noise and crowds—when the spotlights finally dim and this curious melodrama ends—Sarah Palin will be left with little more than northern exposure.