Sarah Palin: She’s Becoming One of the Republican Party’s Biggest Liabilities

February 11, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Could the Tea Party become a major political party, supplanting the Republican Party, or perhaps swallowing it whole, boa constrictor-like? Don’t bet on it. Could Sarah Palin lead either a Tea Party or Republican Party to victory as a presidential candidate? Don’t bet on that, either.

Let’s not forget that in the 2007-08 election cycle all the Republican candidates for president fought for the mantle of being the most conservative—-theorizing that the “base” was far right, and would outweigh its numbers during the nominating process. They all fought for the extreme right’s support, pledging to lower taxes, cut government spending, “drill, baby, drill,” and get tough with illegal immigrants. All of them except for John McCain, who had a more moderate record on most of these issues and was less bellicose in addressing them.

Ron Paul, the most libertarian 2008 Republican candidate, and the one who generated the most sustained buzz, got about 10% of the Republican vote. Mitt Romney, the best financed, best looking and best credentialed, didn’t last long, and was even defeated by a more likable former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, who survived only a few weeks longer.

Republican presidential primary voters, the same as Democratic presidential primary voters (who didn’t give Dennis Kucinich many votes) take the job of selecting a leader of the free world seriously.

Sarah Palin for president? Not likely. The polls already show that despite her engaging personality, her off-the-charts book sales, and her $100,000 speaking fees, most Americans seriously doubt that she would be up to the job. In fact, a strong case may be made that she’s going to cost Republicans some otherwise winnable seats in November.

By giving credibility to the Tea Party movement and encouraging candidates to challenge GOP incumbents in primaries, the Republicans will wind up with fractured campaigns in many states and congressional districts. It’s one thing for a right wing Republican to emerge as the party’s candidate from a crowded field in a low turnout open primary. It’s quite another to take down a Republican incumbent who’s being financed by mainstream Republican committees and support organizations.

Just how does a Tea Party candidate challenge a Republican incumbent who’s voted “no” on health reform, energy, the debt ceiling, and just about the entire Obama/Democratic agenda? By being even more extreme. By picking up cues from Palin’s Nashville speech: Go to war with Iran, or North Korea, or maybe both. Cut the budget, even if it means less money for this state or district’s roads, schools and other services. A free market economy shouldn’t be regulating bad behavior by banks and credit card companies. These are winning political arguments?

Before Sarah Palin spoke in Nashville, the Tea Partiers were brought to their feet by a rousing speech delivered by former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who had no success making get tough on immigration his ticket to the 2008 presidential nomination. Tancredo drew heavy duty applause in Nashville by charging that President Obama was elected by “people who could not even spell the word vote or say it in English.” Will Tea Party/Republican candidates write off the Latino vote in 2010?

He also called for making civics literacy tests a prerequisite for voting. Such tests were used during Jim Crow to keep blacks from voting and were banned by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Will Tea Party/Republican candidates write off the few remaining black and minority voters who still trust them? Between Latinos and blacks combined, we’re talking about nearly 25% of the electorate here.

Sarah Palin is an engaging celebrity and a political force that both major parties will have to deal with in 2010 and probably well into the future. But she is what her book title says she is, a “rogue” politician.

She first gained prominence in Alaska by claiming that the state’s Republican party chairman had misused his position on Alaska’s Oil and Gas Commission to help the industry and the party. She leveraged that episode to defeat an incumbent Republican governor in the party primary.

Once she became governor, Palin used her weight to help a Democratic legislative effort to essentially double taxes on oil being pumped out of Alaska. She led a fight to plan for a natural gas pipeline that the oil industry had no interest in building. And she canceled long held valuable leases ExxonMobile had on Alaska’s North Slope because they had failed to explore and drill on them.

None of these were actions of a timid or conventional political figure. But when John McCain plucked her from the crowd in 2008, it was all-too obvious and painful to see that being rogue in Alaska would not equate to being presidential elsewhere.

Given a few years of study, travel and tutoring Sarah Palin might have become a quick study and a credible presidential candidate. When grafted onto her “you betcha” personality it might have offered the Republican party some sizzle it sorely lacked in the 2008 race. But this right turn to the Tea Party, and talk of “revolution,” and encouragement for Republican party civil war, and wholesale adoption of some of the discredited excesses of the Bush years, such as trigger-happy willingness to go to war, is creating more of a liability for Republicans than an asset.

The Democrats should not be jumping for joy over the Palin diversion, since she obviously is tapping into widely held dissatisfaction with the state of union. But neither should they fear a Palin ascendency. This is a Republican party problem. Quite possibly a big one that will only balkanize what is already a shaky political institution.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at [email protected])