Palin and the Wrath of Balz
You may have seen this piece by Dan Balz in The Washington Post over the weekend. It traverses the conventional wisdom on former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and considers whether she is willing and able to bridge the political distance between her current political celebrity and a future presidential run. The piece doesn’t really break any new ground, but I bring it to your attention because it ends with a nice quote from veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Tom Rath. In assessing whether Palin has the capacity to be president, Rath notes that "Her challenge is to fill in the substantive blanks in a way that demonstrates that capacity without losing her uniqueness and her role as provocateur,” a task which he concludes is “not easy."
Rath seems to be suggesting that Palin needs to preserve her populist, tea party edge, while simultaneously gaining the policy gravitas necessary for presidential leadership. There is no doubt that Palin relishes her role as provocateur, especially for the wildly popular reaction it generates among her conservative supporters. But I continue to believe that Palin’s remarkably sharp partisan edge is a significant obstacle to her ever assembling a winning electoral coalition, and for the moment at least, she seems to have no interest in toning it down.
As for policy gravitas, I’ve heard political observers say for months now that all Palin needs to do is spend some time schooling herself on the issues. My guess is that won’t happen anytime soon. This is not a statement about Palin’s aptitude. She is shrewd enough to understand (as others have noted) that her popularity is a function of mood, attitude, beliefs and attributes, not policy specifics. As a result, being immersed in the issues is not essential to her notion of leadership, nor is it demanded of her by supporters. This is a bit trickier, as candidate attributes are often stronger drivers of how people interpret the potential for presidential leadership than policy fluency.  Here Palin shares some similarities with George W. Bush, who served for two terms, so it is not necessarily an automatic disqualifier.

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