The Republican Party has to offer Sarah Palin the conditions in which she can admit that she isn’t, for all her demotic political strengths, the party’s ideal leader, especially not its leader into grand presidential battle. She is a person too polarizing for that, and in an election in which Obama will be scrapping furiously for reelection, scrapping furiously for his place in history, the Republican Party will need at its helm a leader who will make independent voters embrace the GOP, not turn away from it in panic. Palin is a consummate motivator of the Republican base, an accomplished preacher to the choir, more “cheer”-leader than leader. She is not a persuader, or bridge builder.
The most pressing task for the Republican Party after Tuesday’s thunderclap election is, of course, to demonstrate to the American public that the GOP isn’t as appalling as the Democratic Party and that it now deserves to govern this country. Only the most purblind Republican partisan will see the results, widely predicted to take the form of a thumping GOP victory in the House, as well as significant gains in the Senate, as an affirmation of the Republicans and their agenda. They are instead, by any calculation, a clear rebuke to the Democrats and to President Obama. (A full 45 percent of those intending to vote Republican say their vote will be a “ protest” against the Democrats.)
The second-most pressing task facing the Republican Party after the elections will be what I call “Palin-management”—in effect, how best to deploy Sarah Palin over the next 12 months, using her judiciously for her undisputed pulling power with the base while also keeping her within political bounds so as not to scare away the independents who are now fleeing like singed cats from the Democrats. The GOP needs to retain those independents over the next two years if it is to win back the White House, and how the Republicans manage their relations with these independents will determine whether the GOP can confine Obama to a single term of spectacular (and scarcely foreseen) implosion.
Already, an intra-party controversy appears to have broken out in the GOP following a story on Politico in which a number of unnamed Republican “advisers to the main 2012 presidential contenders” and “other veteran Republican operatives” are reported to be coalescing around a Stop Sarah campaign, whose primary aim appears to be to ensure that Palin doesn’t secure the Republican presidential nomination for 2012. And alongside this anonymous (and lily-livered) sniping, a rollicking civil war has broken out between Palin and Karl Rove, after the Republican Rasputin declared scornfully that the lady from Wasilla didn’t have the “ gravitas” to be president. Civil wars are always pyrotechnical, and this one should be most eye-catching: Rove wants Palin killed off, politically; Palin wants Rove excommunicated, ideologically. Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd will have field days; and the lesser liberal writers (Bob Herbert, for example, and Gail Collins) will bang their little drums with lesser liberal glee.
Rove may well be correct on the gravitas point, but he is quite wrong in the way he has gone about making it. Flushed with victory on Wednesday, the Republican establishment may come to acquire delusions of potency: But they would be foolish in the extreme if they start to think that they no longer need Sarah Palin. No one can keep the party’s base pumped up as deftly as she can. No one else has an appeal to the GOP grassroots that is quite as visceral.
The best—the only—way to “manage” Palin would be for the Republican establishment to treat her with respect, and to avoid any hint at all of a patronizing attitude. She keeps the party honest because she gives lusty voice to the concerns of ordinary American conservatives. She believes she speaks for a segment of America that is treated shabbily by the country’s political and cultural elites. She may be unorthodox, but her message has a wide political resonance. The GOP elders would do well to remember that she derives her influence from the vast majority of Republicans who are frustrated with their own party—so frustrated, in fact, that they’ve made her the torch-bearer for their anger. She speaks for them, she cusses for them, and they celebrate her—even if she doesn’t sound remotely like Margaret Thatcher.
Palin is a consummate motivator of the Republican base, an accomplished preacher to the choir, more “cheer”-leader than leader.
The truth is that the party cannot “manage” Sarah Palin unless she agrees to manage herself. She doesn’t really have a team of advisers. As someone who’s watched her at close quarters told me, it’s just her and Todd (and their BlackBerrys), and this duo constantly puts the party on the defensive. The establishment has to tiptoe around her and handle her delicately. Look at what happened to Rove when he was brutally honest about Christine O’Donnell. (Someone in the party had to be!) Palin chewed him out.
She is also no fool. The debacle of Christine O’Donnell will, surely, have concentrated her mind on her own electoral shortcomings: Ideological immaculateness is all very well, but you can’t treat a presidential election as an opportunity to put on an unelectable play of purity.
Palin knows her own strengths. In all likelihood, she knows her own weaknesses even better. The Republican Party must flatter her for her strengths, all the better to use them well in the next year. Equally, it must be diplomatic about her weaknesses, alluding to them in private and not blaring them out to the nation in the incendiary manner of a Karl Rove. Palin will come to concede her electoral limitations—sooner than most people expect. And when she does, she will leave the presidential field open to a candidate better able than she to tackle Obama in 2012. That would be her finest contribution to the Republican Party. In not running herself, she will make the party electable.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)