Steve Kornacki and John Sides have a debate going today about How To Make Palin Go Away. Kornacki argues that if she winds up an official candidate for the presidency, she'll be exposed as unpopular. Sides responded that by not running, she's already marginalized herself. Kornacki shot back that his way "could last for years." Great debate!
Who is right? I absolutely love Kornacki's vision of a Palin campaign rapidly turning into Gary Hart's trek through the wilderness when he tried to revive his candidacy in 1988, after he had a scandal-induced hiatus from the campaign. But I'm not really convinced it would work out that way. I absolutely agree that Palin has to date managed to alienate much of the GOP, and that would severely limit her upside. But it's not at all clear to me that she would be as big a joke as Hart was. Gary Hart never really had the kind of strong supporters that the Sage of Wasilla has had for the last few years, and so once he lost the folks who thought he might win, there was really nothing remaining.
Moreover, at the rank-and-file level, and perhaps even among some activists, the sorts of things that Palin have done to antagonize most of her party are understandable as pluses, not minuses. There certainly are lots of Republicans out there who believe themselves to be very hostile to the GOP "establishment," and might be persuaded to stick with her, especially given the other options.
I also continue to believe, even at this very late date, that Palin would be capable of mending her reputation considerably if her actions changed. Granted, I don't expect that by now; for whatever reasons, the Palin we've seen is probably the Palin that we're going to see. But everyone loves a redemption story, and I suspect that there are a lot of reporters and more than a few Republican operatives and activists who would be happy to talk about how Palin has "grown" over the years. If she would only let them.
Could she still win? I'm not quite ready to take her off my list of plausible nominees, but she's obviously wasted a ton of time, and even if she did suddenly change there's an excellent chance that it's too late. But if she does decide to become a formal candidate, I don't think she'll wind up as Gary Hart II, at least not for some time. Kornacki does have a point, however; should she back off this time and the Republicans lose, the tease will start again right around the time that the polls close on the west coast, and it won't let up for the next three years. Losing this time around -- not informally through testing the waters and backing off, but with a solid defeat at the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire -- is the best way to prevent that. Well, other than having a different Republican in the White House.