Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Palin and Playing By the Rules

Why is Sarah Palin, as she is now, not going to win the Republican nomination for president? And why will the leaders of the Republican Party be acting sensibly in making that choice?

I've talked several times about "playing by the rules." I've said that the main reason Sarah Palin was unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination was that she refuses to do the sorts of things that candidates for president have to do. Wonderful, wonderful example of this in a post yesterday from David Frum. Frum describes in some detail one group of GOP elites (the Republican Jewish Coalition) and what Palin did to annoy them. The gist of it is that the RJC has sponsored Israel trips for numerous GOP presidential candidates, and that Palin chose to use another group to arrange her trip without even bothering to RSVP to the RJC's invitation.

Now, Frum is no Palin supporter, and probably wouldn't be no matter what the Sage of Wasilla did at this point, so one should take his criticisms with that in mind. However, the key here isn't so much that Frum dislikes or criticizes her, but the process he describes. And what he says is quite revealing about how nomination politics works, and why Palin is failing at it:
But normally candidates are in the business of adding to the number of their friends — including converting former non-friends into new friends. Candidates seek to broaden their basis of support. They are more interested in future successes than in past irritations. Successful candidates are strategic. They may hold grudges, but they do not reveal their grudges. And they do not act on their grudges against their own best interests.
Frum believes that Palin rejected the RJC because he and what he describes as one or two others on the organization's board had taken public shots at her. That could be it; it could be, instead, that Palin isn't plugged in enough to Republican politics to know who the important players are -- which would mean that she hasn't cared enough to know.

Again, this is how nomination politics works. For all one hears about efforts to market candidates to mass electorates (that's what things like the "authenticity" debate are all about), the bulk of nomination politics is retail, not wholesale -- and the customers candidates are trying to reach are a relatively small group of party elites. It is not, to be sure, only party officials...it's a fairly large and usually evolving group; it includes not just formal party officials, but also leaders of party-affiliated groups, campaigning and governing professionals, activists, and politicians. That's more like thousands, not hundreds, of people; it's only the dreaded "establishment" if the term is used very loosely to mean anyone with a long-term commitment to party politics, and even then both parties are at least somewhat permeable to new people and groups. Read Frum's description of the Republican Jewish Committee, and then multiply that by all the other organized and informal groups that make up the Republican Party.

It's thousands of people, but over a three year nomination campaign it's not that hard for a candidate to have personal contact with quite a large number of them, and virtually all of the leaders within that larger group (and, for most candidates the nomination campaign caps off an even longer career in national politics; Ronald Reagan spent about 15 years seeking the nomination, and Bill Clinton basically spent his whole life on it). And don't forget that these are communities, both overall (as the Republican Party) and in various different groups and subgroups. Maybe a candidate doesn't have personal contact with all of the thousands of people involved, but she can certainly get within one degree of separation to an awful lot of them.

That's what Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have been doing for the last two-plus years -- well, for Romney, for most of the last six years. Group by group, piece by piece. It's what, by every report I've seen since November 2008, Sarah Palin has just not done.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself: wait a second. Isn't this incredibly petty of all these groups? Are you telling me that RJC board members are going to be so peeved that Sarah Palin booked her Israel trip with some other organization that they're correct to take that snub and turn it into a presidential nomination preference, regardless of how Palin or any other candidate actually stands on issues of public policy?

Yup. And even more: I'll tell you that it's not petty. They're correct to do so.

Choosing a presidential candidate is serious business for these folks. For some, it's their career that's on the line; they want to be in line for some assistant secretary job over at HHS, or a position at the RNC -- or they want the best possible coattails for their re-election campaign. For others, it's a specific, tangible, policy payoff (such as, for unions in 2008, the question of how high on the agenda card check would be for a Democratic president). For others, it's achieving the goal that motivated them to enter politics in the first place, whether it's getting universal health care or ending legal abortions or whatever. By definition, each of them has put significant personal resources -- time, money -- into the party. But they have no guarantee that the nominee, if she becomes president, will actually do what they want. All they have is trust. This isn't a parliamentary system, in which a candidate who betrays supporters once in office risks being bounced by his own party. Once she's there, a president is there. And there's very little party loyalists can do about it; even the threat of withdrawing support for re-election is usually empty, because the alternative is almost always going to be much worse and everyone, including the president, knows it.

So, if you're a party leader (and remember: I'm talking, always, about that very large group as leaders), what can you do? Sure, you can collect position papers, but you know how meaningless those are going to be; even issue-oriented groups can't always predict which issues are really going to matter down the line. Much better, even if still risky, is assessing the personal commitment the candidates have to your group. What's the rapport like? Who has the candidate hired on her staff that has a history of working with you? Will her White House take your calls? Consult you on appointments your group cares about? What's the candidate's reputation? Has she bargained honestly? Is she loyal to her supporters? How will she deal with honest disagreements?

Who will she listen to, if she becomes president?

It's not petty at all to care about the answers to those questions, even if the evidence groups and individuals must use to guess at the answers often seems trivial or even, perhaps, petty; it's the only evidence that's available.

Now, of course, it's very possible that what Sarah Palin is actually telling everyone is that she's really not interested in running for president. But all of this applies to "normal" candidates, anyway. It's how presidential nominees are really chosen. And if you're trying to follow nomination politics, it suggests that you're much better off reading about the sorts of things Frum is writing about here than analyses about candidate style and packaging. Candidates do have to demonstrate at least some ability to appeal to mass electorates, but first and foremost they need to win the support of the most active portions of the party. Without that, they have no chance.


  1. "Why will Sarah Palin not going to win the nomination" ...ah, do you ever proof read what you write?

  2. Anon,

    Yes. Ever? Yes. But I'm pretty awful at it, even when I do it.

    But thanks, and fixed.

  3. I don't understand how David Frum keeps from going insane. He is obviously an intelligent and thoughtful man, and look with whom he has allied himself. Just the comments on his own blog are appalling.

    I can understand people who are conservative because they are dumb or greedy or authoritarian. People like Frum mystify me. Most people who can see beyond their noses don't stay conservative as adults. Perhaps I should read his blog to see what it is he is getting out of conservatism.

  4. Dear Mr. Bernstein,
    What exactly makes you a political scientist? What are your qualifications exactly (ie. masters degree or just watch cnn/fox news alot)? Just wondering because my Professor is making me read this.


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