Sarah Palin: the establishment’s savior?

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Normally, when writing on political dynamics, one begins with a theory, presents a justification, and then details a potential result. But I’m impatient, so I thought it might be easier to crank up the Delorean and look at the end first. To that end, I’ve made up a crazy hypothetical brought back an important news report from the future to illustrate how Sarah Palin could ultimately become the establishment candidate in the race:

January 2nd, 2012

DES MOINES, IOWA (Reuters) — Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin defied expectations last night by winning the Iowa caucus, gaining the support of 35% of caucus-goers. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finished a distant second with 20%, barely edging out the 19% earned by businessman Herman Cain. Texas Gov. Rick Perry received a stinging rebuke with 9%.

Palin, a tea-party darling treated as a pariah by Washington Republicans, ironically surfed a late wave of support from establishment conservatives, who were alarmed by the collapse of Perry and the surge by the more radical Cain.

“This was the best [expletive] deal we could strike with the tea party,” said a GOP operative who asked not to be named. “We offered them [expletive] Perry, he flopped, they gave us [expletive] crazy Herman, and this was the only [expletive]  card we had left to play. I’m mad, but not as mad as I’d be if it had been the [expletive] pizza guy.”

That may have been a bit overwritten, but I don’t think it’s terribly off-base in terms of how a (still very possible) Palin campaign might end up. Many who dismiss Palin now are forgetting one crucial point: She would not enter the race as either the most anti-establishment candidate or the most conservative candidate. Those titles go to Bachmann and Cain. Meanwhile, every effort made by the establishment to put up a non-tea-party candidate has, up to this point, failed or underperformed.

Mitt Romney may be at the front of the pack, but he seems to have a support ceiling around 25% of the national vote, and is not well liked by the base. He’s written off Iowa and, while a win in New Hampshire is likely, he would have a very hard time beating anybody in a two-man race in South Carolina. He holds down a large chunk of the establishment, but many in the party elite know that he would have a hard time winning and have looked frantically for another savior. They tried Pawlenty, but he never got of the ground. The “Draft Daniels” effort failed to pull in its candidate. The “Draft Ryan” effort fizzled, and the “Draft Christie” push set a new standard in obnoxious refusal to accept reality. Some thought they’d hit pay dirt with Rick Perry, but at the end of the day he proved unacceptable to the base. Now, they’re out of options and, as evidenced by the Cain boom, the tea-party mutineers have seized control of the ship.

Most pundits are arguing that Perry is still alive and that Cain will soon go away, but from my point of view that’s just proof that they have entered the “denial” stage of the grieving process. Cain is raising buckets of money, staffing up, and pulling into the lead — a rise that looks more like Huckabee’s surge in 2008 than Bachmann’s boomlet. As we enter November, heads will begin exploding as the GOP power brokers realize that Herman Cain could win the nomination in a rout.

Personally, I like Cain a lot. He’s my firm second choice in this race after Palin. However, to many in the establishment, the idea of nominating a political neophyte with a radical economic plan seems crazy. Hence the grief analogy.

The second stage of the grieving process is “anger,” which we’re already seeing bubble up against Cain in the Washington media. The third is “bargaining” — which is where Palin comes in.

Assuming she enters the race later this month, Sarah Palin will be able to position herself as a sensible compromise between a terrified establishment and the Cain-crazed base.

Palin brings a serious record of bipartisan governance in Alaska and a focus on unifying the party behind the goal of ousting Barack Obama. In all likelihood, she would position herself on the right of the field, but without the damn-the-torpedoes attitude embodied by people like Cain and Bachmann.

Palin’s bread and butter in her Alaska days was her image as a good-governance reformer rather than a rigid ideologue. She pushed hard for solid conservative policy, slashing earmark requests and line-item vetoing massive amounts of pork spending, but she also governed with a smile and often with the grudging help of Democrats — who saw her anti-corruption zeal as preferable to the oil-soaked crony-capitalism that defined the Alaskan establishment. This is the image that Palin would try to project in a national campaign — a Christie-esque budget warrior with a serious executive record and a willingness to work with anybody who wants to make America better.

If you think about it, that’s exactly the image that the establishment wing of the GOP has been shooting for all along. It’s why many of them pursued the likes of Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and before them Bobby Jindal (remember when he was all the rage?). Palin actually brings those qualities to the table and would articulate them forcefully in a debate setting. That’s not to say she wouldn’t run as an anti-Washington tea partier, which she would. However, her pragmatist, good-governance pitch would put miles of space between her and ideological crusaders like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, which brings us back to the expletive-laden hypothetical I started with.

The party establishment may not like Sarah Palin very much, but it may well prefer her to Herman Cain. At the end of the day, Palin’s actual record (and her usual campaign pitch) casts her not as a rigid puritanical witch, but as Chris Christie in a skirt, without Christie’s moderate baggage. After the collapse of Perry and the rise of Cain, that message could be enough to forge a grand bargain between the Palinistas and the party brass — uniting the party behind the most unlikely compromise candidate in history.

Call me crazy, but this is a crazy campaign. The entire system is already turned on its head, so there’s every reason to expect an ending that we currently see as impossible.

Adam Brickley was the founder of the website “Draft Sarah Sarah Palin for Vice President” (palinforvp.blogspot.com). He has contributed to Race42012.com and The Weekly Standard’s blog, and is a contributor at Conservatives4Palin.com.