The Rebel-in-Chief

Will the 2012 election be tailor-made for Sarah Palin?

It would be tempting to say that Sarah Palin is back, but she never left in the first place. Yet there’s clearly something of a Palin boomlet beginning to take place, at least in the media. Last Friday, blogger Andrew Sullivan suggested that she might be “The Unstoppable Sarah Palin,” which was meant to sound a note of fear rather than jubilation. Today, another Andrew, the Los Angeles Times’s Andrew Malcolm, approvingly records that Palin is making great political strides.

What the two Andrews see in common is a politician who has cleverly positioned herself as the conservative rebel-in-chief. Palin is the non-Washington candidate. According to Malcolm:

Ask yourself, who stuck out as that kind of in-touch candidate in the 2007-08 cycle, the one who looked and sounded different from all the other talking-point talking heads in their tailored suits and pantsuits, tainted by long, seemingly unproductive years in Washington?

He continues, “On this new kind of playing field, having a short political resume, no ongoing elective office, no 747-entourage and no responsibility for this current partisan, oil-stained, jobless, deficit-ridden, D.C. mess actually becomes a plus-size plus.”

Already Palin is displaying her political acumen. On Sunday, Palin waded, or tweeted, right into the battle over President Obama’s comments defending Senate majority leader Harry Reid against his opponent Sharron Angle. Obama announced at a fundraiser that Angle was “even more extreme” than the Republicans in Washington. Palin tweeted, “He's got most disconnected, backasswards plan ever imposed on the country we love.” It’s hard to imagine any of the other GOP candidates putting it that bluntly.

Palin has also been touring the country to get conservative Republicans elected. In an email to her supporters on Friday, Malcolm notes, Palin bragged:

Through SarahPAC, we have been able to provide conservative candidates around the country with over $150,000 in campaign contributions. This money goes to support the campaigns of strong, conservative leaders like Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John Kasich of Ohio.

Throw in Nikki Haley and Palin isn’t doing badly at all. Imagine a ticket consisting of Palin at the top and Haley as vice president?

The other strong GOP contender is Mitt Romney. Romney has positioned himself well to the right on foreign policy for the primaries. It allows him to paint Obama as a wussbag on foreign policy. The line on economic policy is already crystal clear for the GOP, assuming that unemployment and the deficit remain high. But Palin already has much of the base locked up. She can appeal to it on a visceral, emotional level, similar to the way that Richard Nixon, who exposed Alger Hiss, could. She is able to express its resentments against the cosseted Washington elite authentically.

It’s hard to avoid the nagging feeling that the 2012 election might well be tailor-made for Palin. She will have a lock on women voters, at least conservative ones. Chris Matthews speculates that she can win a knockout blow in Iowa and then cruise to the nomination. Once she’s secured it, Palin-frenzy would be at an all-time high. Electoral suicide for the GOP?

Not necessarily. Imagine this scenario. Iran explodes a nuclear weapon. Oil prices soar. Unemployment is over 10 percent, and the debt continues to soar. The heads of Obama’s debt and deficit commission are already warning that the national debt may “destroy the country from within.” Palin will present herself as its savior.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.