02.09.10

How Palin Could Win

GOP leaders may turn up their noses at Sarah Barracuda, but Palin could easily be the Republican nominee in 2012. Former Bush aide Matt Latimer on what she needs to do next.

As Sarah Palin considers a run for the GOP nomination in 2012, she is as puzzling a political phenomenon as ever. Among the grassroots she is greeted with rapture—selling more books more quickly than any other political figure since Colin Powell. John McCain’s onetime foreign policy guru remains on board as an adviser, puncturing the notion put forward by Palin critics that she was an unteachable, uncooperative shrew. At least for the moment Palin also has a fan in Senator McMaverick himself. Facing a right-wing primary challenge in Arizona, the famous pork-buster McCain is now asking his former running mate to help save his own bacon.

So, governor, urge Tina Fey to keep on telling people that you once said things like you could see Russia from your house. She's giving you a campaign contribution—just don't tell the FCC.

Yet in D.C.’s risk-averse political circles, the charges against Palin are daunting: politically inexperienced, hopelessly vapid, can’t speak without a teleprompter, oversimplifies complex issues into a bunch of feel-good slogans—basically everything Hillary Clinton’s campaign said about Barack Obama. And yet the truth is that the “misunderestimated” Palin couldn’t be in a much better position right now if she planned it. (And we all know, of course, that she’s far too simple-minded to have done that.) Though polls suggest she has a long way to go to win support of voters overall—a recent Marist sounding found her trailing President Obama significantly—she remains a top-tier candidate among members of the GOP. A Gallup poll found that more Republicans wanted Palin to run for president than any other potential candidate. If she’s serious about seeking the presidency, here’s what Palin needs to do now.

Explain why she quit. The governor needs a better answer about why she left her job before her term expired, especially when it appears to have been done for the allure of a book deal and television appearances. Voters might understand how her political enemies made her job in Alaska impossible, but the criticism she faced in Juneau is nothing like what she’d face in Washington. Conservatives will withhold their judgment about Palin on other matters, but the idea that she abandoned her post when things got tough could prove acidic.

Ignore the D.C. strategists. A number of Palin advisers will urge her to play defense, to prove her intellectual bona fides to critics with a series of policy speeches or high-risk interviews. That was the approach Dan Quayle tried when he ran in 1996 and though he was a far more capable man than suggested by his caricature, he never surmounted it. Governor Palin should come to terms with the fact that, rightly or wrongly, certain people will always see her as more Tina Fey than Henry Kissinger. Authenticity is an underappreciated commodity in politics. The GOP already is full up with PowerPoint candidates armed with focus-grouped talking points. Just be yourself and let the voters decide if that’s good enough.

Don't ignore policy experts. People don't elect human encyclopedias. They elect leaders who aren't afraid of surrounding themselves with those who may be smarter than they are. Before he ran for the White House, George W. Bush famously brought scores of experts to Austin to tutor him on various issues unfamiliar to a southern governor. John McCain served in the Senate for decades when he ran for president and even he admitted he knew little about the economy (Problem No. 14,000 in that jinxed effort). Even President Obama has sought outside advice. So keep studying up on the issues with wise counsel—not to prove how smart you are to Katie Couric. Do it to become a better leader.

Send Tina Fey a Bouquet of Flowers. Lorne Michaels, too, and every writer at Saturday Night Live. Some in our popular culture and many in the media simply cannot resist disparaging conservative leaders, which only serves to lower expectations for them among the general public. Thus Ronald Reagan was supposed to have been easily outwitted by his intellectual better, Walter Mondale (ask President Mondale how that plan turned out.) The first George Bush was supposed to be stupefied by Michael Dukakis and Bush the Second easily outflanked by those Scions of Smugness, Al Gore and John Kerry. True to form, Americans were told that Sarah Palin would be humiliated to the point of tears by Joe Biden in the vice presidential debate. That she managed not only to utter complete sentences but score a few points about the Obama-Biden ticket made her look a lot better as a result. So, governor, urge Tina Fey to keep on telling people that you once said things like you could see Russia from your house. She's giving you a campaign contribution—just don't tell the FCC.

Keep engaging President Obama. Every day David Axelrod lights a candle in the hope that his boss will have to face off against Sarah Palin in 2012. Oh, how President Smartypants would love to condescend to Governor Palin, and by implication the voters, on tax policy, health-care reform, and, say, the GDP of Ecuador. In 1968, national Democrats thought they could easily beat a proven loser, Richard Nixon, for the White House. In 1980, conservatives were said to have a “death wish” when they nominated Reagan for president. Sarah Palin may or may not prove to be of their caliber, but Team Obama would do anything to give her the chance.

Run against the Republican establishment. Contrary to the delusional hopes of some party strategists—who combine the strategic sense of General Motors with the PR savvy of Jay Leno—voters this year haven’t fallen in love with the Republican Party all over again. Instead, in an only-in-Washington twist, the GOP has benefited from its astounding incompetence. Having compromised the party to the point of powerlessness only a year ago, GOP leaders managed to avoid blame for the Obama administration’s disappointments, thus reaping unearned political rewards. The voters, in fact, would love to throw out both parties if they could. Not too long ago an NBC News poll showed that the “tea party movement” would beat both the Democrats and Republicans if they fielded candidates. Thus the governor should continue to chastise both parties for their embarrassing spending sprees, challenge the big-government conservatism of her own party, and keep talking about a political revolution. She’s as good a vehicle as any for voters seeking to send a message.

Remember political history. “No actor can be elected president.” “No First Lady can win a Senate seat in a state where she never lived.” “No one-term senator can defeat Hillary Clinton.” There are plenty more opportunities to prove those in the know wrong.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.