Monday, November 23, 2009

How to Treat Palin

How should the press treat Sarah Palin right now?

There seem to be two schools of thought. Some believe that she's basically a joke, a celebrity who has no chance of ever winning the Republican presidential nomination, let alone winding up in the White House. Among those are Isaac Chotiner, Ezra Klein, and Damon Linker:
Even ridicule can be a form of flattery. Better to bow out, to decline the provocation, since responding to her perpetuates and legitimates the illusion that she’s a serious player in our nation’s politics.
Then there's the other side, who believe that she is a likely presidential nominee, and therefore should be covered seriously and held to the same standards as other potential presidents. Andrew Sullivan is the leader of this group, I suppose (no need to link to any particular post, is there? Here's something recent). Here's Mark Kleiman, who believes that Palin is close to an inevitable nominee. Frank Rich wants it both ways: for him, Palin is both dominant ("far and away the most important brand in American politics after Barack Obama, and attention must be paid") and can't win the White House ("there's no way the math of her fan base adds up to an Electoral College victory").

So, Kevin Drum asks, "Sarah Palin: joke or serious threat?"

The most sensible thing I've seen is Matt Yglesias's comment:
I think we should take the probability of her becoming president at least somewhat seriously. She probably won’t win the GOP nomination (the odds of any particular individual winning are <>does get the nomination and the economic fundamentals aren’t good then I don’t think anyone should count on her absurd persona bailing the Democrats out.
There's a bit more to say than that. First, the idea that it doesn't matter whether or not she impresses party elites is nonsense. Party leaders have enormous influence in nominations, including presidential nominations. That's why Douthat is correct to characterize Palin's choices since the election (resigning her office, carrying on petty feuds instead of pretending to be a Serious Policy Person) as "wrong moves if [she] wanted to become president someday." They aren't, however, disqualifications. She can't win the Republican nomination against the solid opposition of Republican leaders, but she can win with their neutrality or moderate support, and she still has plenty of time to do something about that -- but she actually has to do it. Whether she does that or not is both important (because she could be nominated) and interesting (because, I think almost everyone agrees, it's a fascinating story). Bottom line: she's currently running for president. If she continues to run, she has a good chance at being either a serious contender for the nomination or a Jesse Jackson style rump candidate. Either way, that's someone who should be covered by the national press.

What if she does get the nomination? Well, first of all, it would likely mean that she did some of the things that Douthat wants her to do. The idea that her image has been forever fixed is silly; candidates as diverse as Joe Biden, Bob Dole, and of course Richard Nixon have managed to reinvent themselves and redraw their images. I do agree that it's unlikely that she'd be a strong candidate in the general election. Bottom line there is that Matt is basically correct that neither ideological extremism or what he calls her "absurd persona" would prevent her from winning, especially since both would probably be modified by the time she reached her convention. They would, however, despite those modifications, tend to hurt her; it's not hard to see her winding up as a Goldwater/McGovern style loser.

To me, the most important evidence that we have so far isn't her inability to discuss public policy issues coherently; almost anyone can learn to do that if they put the effort in to do it. What's interesting, however, is that she doesn't seem willing to put in very much effort, on that or on anything else. Nor does she appear to have the candidate skills needed to head a national campaign (which requires things such as message discipline and working well with staff). Both of those would be almost certainly necessary if she is to have a serious chance for the nomination. I'll be watching to see whether she actually has, or is acquiring, those skills.

But, beyond that, I don't think it's up to media elites to decide which candidates are serious and which are not; reporters, editors, and producers should take their cues from party elites (and, to a lesser extent, public opinion polling). And so far the cues mainly say that Palin is a real candidate for president, and therefore she should be covered as one.

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