2012 Spoiler

09.02.11

Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Palin

Her dithering approach to a presidential campaign wears thin, but she still has clout: A Palin for Perry endorsement would sink Mitt Romney in a heartbeat, says John Avlon.

Sarah Palin’s "will-she or won’t-she?" act is getting pretty old.

All eyes will be on her Saturday speech at a Tea Party rally in Iowa, but Palin’s 2012 expiration date is looming.

The scattershot dysfunction that accompanied even this event spoke to the not-ready-for-prime-time quality of her would-be campaign.

After her speech was first promoted as a significant address to the Tea Party faithful, it was suddenly announced that Palin’s appearance was off—or on hold. Non-witch Christine O’Donnell was at first sharing the stage, then exiled, and then back on the program. The rally organizers were suddenly described by Palin aides as disorganized liars. Then all was forgiven. There was more back-and-forth than a U.S. Open match. You couldn’t watch the contradictory volleys without concluding that the Palin camp could screw up a three-car parade.

What we have learned about Sarah Palin over the course of her slow-motion implosion remains true. She seems more interested in attracting media attention than in actually doing the hard work of putting on a presidential campaign, let alone governing. Her 2012 flirtation has become an extended brand-dance—a question as serious as whether to run for president of the United States seems driven by how it will affect her speaking fees.

For the past two-and-a-half years, hundreds of hours of airtime have been wasted on the question of whether Sarah Palin will run for president. It’s always been an essentially impossible question to answer, because she doesn’t seem to know the answer herself.

What we do know is that no serious campaign apparatus has been established. On the other hand, she seems entirely capable of announcing for president impulsively.

But the hole in the 2012 field that Palin would have occupied has already been filled by Michele Bachmann—a candidate with similar Tea-vangelist appeal but with more discipline and a first-rate campaign team in place, led by Ed Rollins.

Nonetheless, despite all these well-deserved dismissals, you can’t count Sarah Palin out. If she were to get into the race, even at this late date, it would change the dynamics of the campaign decisively.

Palin’s support, however diminished, would come out of Rick Perry’s and Bachmann’s hides. They occupy essentially the same political demographic. The overlap would create an opening for Mitt Romney, the former de facto front-runner who has seen his lead obliterated by the entry of Rick Perry into the race. At this point, Romney needs the Hail Mary of a Palin campaign to have a prayer of getting back into pole position, absent a major (but entirely possible) Perry implosion.

Hundreds of hours of airtime have been wasted on the question of whether Sarah Palin will run for president. It’s always been an essentially impossible question to answer, because she doesn’t seem to know the answer herself.

There is another possible game-change scenario—Sarah Palin endorses Rick Perry. The political marriage makes sense—they are fellow conservative populist governors. This endorsement would solidify Perry’s frontrunner status, especially with activists, and put him on a path toward winning the Iowa Caucus and quite possibly the nomination. Palin still has great sway among her fans, even if more and more conclude that she’s not serious about running for president. The Palin seal of approval for Rick Perry would be the kiss of death for Mitt Romney.

There is of course a third option for Saturday’s Tea Party rally speech—a whole lot of nothing, just some more hot air Palin-isms combined with wait and see rhetoric. At that point, delay will have been its own decision.

Right now Sarah Palin retains considerable political influence. But at some point soon, she will have entirely sacrificed what credibility she gained from being the 2008 GOP VP-nominee. She will be little more than the kind of empty political celebrity she once derided, preaching to a dwindling choir.