Monday, August 22, 2011

Palin's Goal: Looking for the DQ

cross-posted from Dagblog

Although it's been crowded out by actual news, there's been another uptick of interest in whether or not Sarah Palin will attempt to run for president. Palin herself is being even more inscrutable than usual these days. Her mixed messages seem baffling until you realize that Palin does not want what most people considering a presidential run want.

Most politicians considering a presidential campaign want to become President of the United States. They balance that desire against the grinding misery of actually running for the job: the endless daily schedule, the constant petty humiliation of raising funds, the life in a fishbowl. The usual question is whether you want the job so badly that you will sacrifice the rest of your life for a shot at it, and how realistic you believe that shot to be.

But Palin is facing a different question with different incentives. She doesn't want the job, and knows she can't win, but she wants to keep the campaign-mode freakshow going as long as she can. Most politicians try to sacrifice as little family privacy as they can while still getting elected governor. Palin quit her job as governor and put her family on reality TV. What other politicians see as the cost, Palin sees as the benefit, and she has no interest in holding office, which is what other politicians consider the prize.

I've argued before that Palin's profession has become potential presidential contender. She has stopped being a politician in order to play one on TV. The catch is that her media career is founded on the public's belief that she might make a serious run for the Oval Office. Once the general public understands that Palin will never get the Republican nomination, her A-list career will end and she will become a B- or C-list media figure. She'll still make very good money and be on TV, but she will make much less money and get much less attention than she does now.

The end of Palin's run on the A-list, if she sticks to the conventional choices a candidate faces, is roughly six months away. If she runs in the primaries, she will likely suffer a major defeat in New Hampshire and lose several other primaries pretty badly, and it will become obvious that she will never be a viable national candidate again. If she tries to avoid that defeat by sitting out, it will become clear that she is never running. Her core audience hates Obama, and will never accept that Palin sat out the 2012 campaign. Either way, Sarah Palin will stop being a hot commodity and become just another celebrity has-been.

I have always thought that Palin would use Obama's first term to rake in all the money she could, while she could, and then make her choice between the two conventional options. I no longer believe this is true. Palin does not want to relinquish her A-list status, and she is not willing to let the circus move on without her. Her strange behavior (the bus tour, the cancellation of the bus tour, staying out of the Iowa Straw Poll, showing up near the Iowa Straw Poll with her bus) only makes sense for a person who is trying to extend her political celebrity by not choosing. Palin wants to find a way to run and not to run at the same time. She can't get the 2012 nomination, and doesn't want it, but she also needs to keep people talking about her as a possible contender for 2016. She's looking to stay out of the race but stay around it.

Palin's perfect outcome would be to lose the race, but to lose in some way that does not seem like a real test of her political strength. If she loses a normal head-to-head matchup, she's finished. What she'd like to do is lose some strange, irregular contest that makes it look like she lost because of the freaky circumstances. Ideally, she would like to scapegoat someone else, like the Republican Party Establishment or Mitt Romney, and act the martyr. In Palin's perfect world, she would lose but people would walk away saying that she was robbed. Her goal is to create the impression that she has has not yet been given a fair shot.

Years ago, a Boston Globe columnist named Ron Borges predicted that Mike Tyson would either beat Evander Holyfield in the first three rounds or find a way to lose by disqualification. Tyson was no longer in shape to go the distance with another serious heavyweight, so if he couldn't knock out Holyfield in the first ten minutes, he would try to find a way to bail out by making the referees stop the fight. Tyson didn't want his weaknesses as a boxer to be exposed, Borges argued, so he would look for the DQ. That way, people wouldn't know for sure that he couldn't beat Holyfield. He didn't lose. He was disqualified.

Sure enough, in round three Tyson bit off a chunk of Holyfield's ear. And he had his DQ. That deepened Tyson's reputation as a freak, but it concealed the fact that he was no longer a real contender. It allowed Tyson (and others) to pretend that Tyson might have won if the match had gone all fifteen rounds. And more importantly, it allowed Tyson's managers to get him more big-money fights on pay-per-view, because he was still considered a contender.

Sarah Palin is cruising for some version of the political DQ. She wants to lose but somehow pin that loss on the refs, so that she can avoid having her weakness as a candidate exposed and continue pulling down big paydays at contender prices. This is not easy to do, and she may very well mismanage it, but I'm convinced that it is her goal.

I don't expect Palin to be in the primaries throughout the nominating season. I expect her to jump in midway through the primaries, or to bail out before Iowa and New Hampshire, or even both. She may well attempt to create some kind of drama at the convention, although Republican party rules no longer leave much room for that. (I think her dream would be to have herself put forward at a divided convention, and then lose and blame her loss on some back-room deal.) She might well try a write-in campaign in certain states, which insulates her from the loss because she wasn't even on the ballot. I think Palin herself is improvising, based on political events that are hard to predict. She's close to being displaced by other candidates at the moment, which was surely not in her plans, and she's certainly going to try something to get some media oxygen back.

What I don't expect Palin to do if she can help it is to risk a big loss in a straightforward primary or caucus. She lost Iowa, which was once a real opportunity for her, about eighteen months ago; there's no way to win that caucus without major campaign infrastructure on the ground, and Palin hasn't built it. She can't catch up with the other candidates now. New Hampshire has always been out of her reach, unless its Republican electorate has changed radically over the last few years. I don't expect Palin to allow herself to be on the ballot in either state, or really in Nevada. She might try to make a stand in South Carolina, if she sees a chance, but the chance might not be there. What's more likely is that Palin jumps into the campaign after the first primaries and caucuses are finished, and does some strange version of a campaign that gets a lot of attention, goes nowhere, and provides a built-in excuse for defeat. ("She wasn't even on the ballot in twenty-three states! Half the delegates had been chosen before she even declared!" Whatever.)

And if Palin seems likely to be exposed at the ballot box, I expect her to quit the campaign with whatever half-baked excuse seems handy. If she can't find a way to make her claim sound convincing, she'll just spew some paranoid accusations around. Sure, that will only make her look crazier. But Palin would rather be considered crazy than lose an election with the whole world watching. If she runs and loses like a sane person, her market value will plummet. Crazy she can take to the bank.

No comments: