New Reagan: Several weeks before the election, GOP insider Ed Rollins said, somewhat chillingly, that some didn’t think Sen. McCain was the right candidate to rebuild the party, an echo of those who felt the same about President Ford in 1976. During 1977-80, Jimmy Carter made such a muck of the economy and foreign policy that a Republican victory was almost inevitable. Having challenged and weakened Ford in the ‘76 primaries, Ronald Reagan earned the ‘80 nomination, which was tantamount to winning the election.
Palin and her advisers can’t help but have grasped the possibility that Obama will falter or that the sheer magnitude of our economic and international challenges will overwhelm him. Every leading Republican has as well. The internecine sniping at Palin has nothing to do with ‘08 postmortems and everything to do with ‘12 prepositioning.
The fallacy is that the party needs a new Reagan — a candidate with special appeal to social conservatives — to beat the new Carter. The moderate, pro-choice John Connally or George H. W. Bush would almost certainly have beaten Carter had one of them been nominated. For ‘12, the GOP doesn’t need a far-right champion. It needs an agonized reappraisal of what makes it necessary and viable. Delaying that work in order to coalesce around the present Palin would be a disastrous mistake, as would her hurling herself against an Obama juggernaut in ‘12 unless she had a reasonable chance of success. From the moment Lehman Bros. failed in mid-September, she and McCain became sacrificial lambs. One self-sacrifice per career is sufficient.
New Nixon: RN would begin with the assumption that Obama will probably not fail. An incumbent is likely to be reelected, and Obama will probably not make Carter’s mistakes. Because circumstances may nonetheless hobble him, however, Mr. Nixon would advise Palin to keep her ‘12 options open, but he’d urge her to fix her attention on ‘16.
As for the present Palin, he would have enormous respect for the potential she embodies. She has an astonishing reservoir of political capital. But he would have some significant concerns. And so he would almost certainly write her a “Dear Governor Palin” letter beginning, “I am sure you are receiving a great deal of free advice from well-meaning fans and self-appointed advisers around the country. While you are of course under no obligation to give it any consideration whatsoever, I have taken the liberty of enclosing a memorandum containing just a few…” In such circumstances, his insights were usually based in the reliability of his own experience. He would make points such as this:
Take some time off the national stage. The temptation will be to accept too many of the invitations that are flowing in and to go out and challenge her critics. We’ve probably seen too much of her already just this week. Better to be a little scarce and mysterious. As RN liked to say, it never hurts to leave them wanting more.
Get back to work. Her critics say she’s a lightweight fashion plate. Confound them by being an effective governor (or senator).
See the world and meet leaders. RN would consider this crucial — first, because she’s justifiably seen as weak in foreign policy, and second, because it would help her prepare to be in power.
Do favors. Some of RN’s most important political work was done in 1964, when he campaigned loyally for the hopeless Goldwater candidacy, and in the midterm elections of 1966, doing favors that were repaid in 1968. In 2012, assuming she doesn’t run, Palin should be the most loyal and committed advocate of whomever does. Purely in terms of her own political interests, the worst than could happen is that he would win and she’d have her pick of jobs.
Don’t let your enemies define you. Palin provoked panic among abortion rights advocates. The weekend after she was named to the ticket, Andrew Sullivan republished a lie about her son Trig’s parentage on his Atlantic Monthly-owned web site that obviously still rankles. Yet Palin would close herself off from growth as a leader by taking it personally. If some people despise her because of her pro-life views, what might she learn from their passion? Some women experience the possibility of restrictions on abortion as an existential challenge. She is comfortable seeing the issue almost solely in terms of the rights of the unborn. What about the rights of the half of the population that wasn’t permitted to vote until 1920? Hillary Clinton did herself a tremendous favor three years ago with a speech in which she spoke respectfully of those who hate abortion. Palin should consider making an analogous gesture, both on the abortion and the gay rights front.
Read and think. At least from afar, Palin doesn’t seem curious or self-critical. Confidence is good in a leader; smugness is not. Mr. Nixon read hungrily all his life and spent long hours in Socratic dialogs with experts, advisers, and aides. While his core principles didn’t waiver, his approach to great issues changed with the times. The anti-communist of the 1940s became the internationalist of the 1950s, the course-changing peacemaker of the 1960s and ’70s, and the elder statesman of the ’80s, respected by all his Democratic and Republican successors in spite of the circumstances of his administration’s end.
As Palin matures as a potential national leader, her views will, one hopes, become more moderate and nuanced. Her New Reagan advisers will caution her against permitting this to happen. Lost in the fantasy that Reagan’s conservative bona fides (rather than the “R” after his name) won him the ‘80 election, they’ll urge her not to tamper with the time-tested Palin brand. But if she thinks she’s fully formed and ready to be President, she’ll never make it. She’ll fade away prematurely or, at best, squander her potential on a quixotic ‘12 bid that would probably relegate her to oblivion and her party to another generation in the wilderness. If she uses the next eight years wisely, focused more on substance than on politics, she could truly be the new Nixon, and a winner.