As I type this, I am watching former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on “The Wendy Williams Show” talking about his impending talk show on Fox and am reminded, not for the first time, that quite a few presidential candidates function as if they never expected or even wanted to be president in the first place. They ran to gain a media platform. But few have done so as brazenly as Huckabee, who typically ended his homespun stump homilies with pedestrian pluckings of his bass guitar.
Huckabee’s ultimate role in the 2008 race was to assist in the splintering of evangelicals away from Mitt Romney, who worked as hard as any candidate in the modern era to assure his nomination through securing the support of Republican Party insiders. Nothing wrong with Romney — he ran a textbook, if Stepford Candidate, campaign, and if it hadn’t been for an almost suspicious looking groundswell against him in the Miami-Dade area, Mitt may have won Florida and go on to win the Republican nomination. Not that he would have done anything more than McCain, but he could’ve won. If only.
If only Republican primary voters could bring themselves, in certain areas, to vote for a Mormon candidate. If only Romney had anything resembling the “common touch.” Those who remember his visit to Jacksonville for an MLK Day parade, where he attempted to lead a crowd of people in a chant of “Who Let the Dogs Out? Who? Who?”, know too well that Romney’s presentation was that of a genuine throwback, as unabashedly patrician and “elitist” as George H.W. Bush in 1980. He broke a cardinal rule of retail politics: never let the people believe you are superior to them. Americans don’t vote for role models anymore. They vote for people with whom they identify.
Which is where Sarah Palin comes in. From the moment she was picked for Veep by the McCain campaign, Palin provoked extreme responses — love, hate, but never indifference. Not so much for her ideology or her policy stands, which didn’t go much deeper than “Drill Baby Drill,” then or now; but for her persona, her shtick, her gimmick. Conservative women seemed to identify with her. Conservative men, in a few cases, saw her as the ultimate; a stateside Thatcher with sex appeal. And those on the left? They have vilified her from the moment she took the national stage. And they won’t stop until she’s gone.
If there were a way to fuse Romney’s competence with Sarah Palin’s shtick, the Republicans would have the ultimate candidate — a game changer, like Candidate Obama was for the Dems (Never mind that President Obama, for the Dems, has been a game loser — that is a subject for another time). As it is though, both Romney and Palin want the nomination, and their advisers and confidantes function as if the White House can’t be won without one of the candidates obliterating the other.
When Romney functionaries were quoted in TIME recently savaging Palin, saying “she’s not a serious human being” and “if she’s standing up there in a debate and the answers are more than fifteen seconds long, she’s in trouble,” they revealed something fundamental about what the Romney operation will do to defeat Palin. They clearly have no issue with taking memes popularized on the left by the late night talk show troupe and the Keith Olbermanns of the world and using them many months before the first primary votes will be cast. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. This in all likelihood will be Mitt Romney’s last campaign, and so things will be said (especially by operatives) that can’t be taken back. Things that will be used against Palin should she become the 2012 Republican nominee.
And she likely will. Mitt Romney is the Willy Loman of Republican Presidential politics. Liked, but not well liked, he is the perpetual salesman, with artfully darkened hair, a ready smile, and shrewd eyes, forever looking to close the deal. But in terms of the Republican nomination, even if Mitt plays the perfect game with the insiders yet again, he won’t do any better than he did against the flaccid field in 2008. The grassroots doesn’t like Mitt and isn’t going to learn to like him. And these, fortunately for Palin, who is as much a totem as she is a candidate, are grassroots times.
So even if she isn’t a “serious human being”, the fact remains that people identify with her in ways they can’t with Romney. Incapable of reinventing himself, Romney thus is consigned to a fate very similar to the one he suffered in 2008.
A.G. Gancarski is a freelance journalist based in Florida.