January 3, 2012

Part 2a - GOP primaries – The Wildcards

Matrix-like: There is no spoon.
NOTE: This is a continuation from Part 1.

There are three big wild cards in the GOP presidential nomination race, and one minor wild card. The three big wild cards include two personalities not in the race – Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin. The in-the-race wild card is Ron Paul and the minor wild card, also in the race, is Rick Santorum. 

Each of those four individuals has some concrete or at least a potential part to play in this election cycle. Each one has the potential to make a significant difference or to be a non-factor depending on what they decide to do. A look at what they bring to the process is in order.

Sarah Palin

The most shocking thing about Sarah Palin in 2011 was her decision not to run. My belief is that she suffered from a lack of confidence in her ability to win the nomination or the general election. Reading the tea leaves that far out is far more difficult than reading the Tea Party support she had. But with the vicious assault by the media and the rest of the left being enjoined by the establishment Republicans, and then by those who had their own horse to back in the nomination process, the viability of her candidacy was called into question. For her, the likelihood of victory, especially with vaunted Rick Perry entry into the race, combined with the further remorseless thrashing her and her family would be subject to, didn’t make for a winning formula. In retrospect, being a presumptive candidate was probably wishful thinking by her supporters, myself included.

She has time for a longer term vision for her own presidential aspirations, if she has any. She can look at 2016, or even 2020 or 2024 as being within her running window. That’s plenty of time to re-establish herself as a viable candidate in the eyes of the broader electorate. Reagan regrouped seemingly quickly after 1976, but Richard Nixon took a much longer window to re-establish himself after his sweaty TV debate against John Kennedy in 1960 (in no great part, apparently deliberately contrived by the Kennedy campaign). But re-establish himself he did.

What’s driving Sarah Palin? If I had a crystal ball into that, I’d have been on a few talk shows over the last two years, but I think it’s possible to make some educated guesses. That’s why I consider her a wild card. Just because she can consider an outside 2012 window for her candidacy, doesn’t mean she has to do so. If she believes that a Republican will win the White House in 2012, then it’s reasonable to assume a slot in 2016 is off the table, and 2020 is pretty far away to be laying the seeds today (although it would be a smart strategy, and I can explain why if anyone cares). So seeing Palin as regarding 2012 as being important, despite missing the starting line because of her own miscalculation of her potential may be plausible. Additionally, she may see an easier path to the White House by running as a VP a second time and sneaking into a default Republican nomination in 2020 after eight years as a VP. It would certainly be an easier route for her family.

Of course that might prompt Obama to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket with himself instead of Joe Biden. A Clinton versus Palin VP debate would be monumental and no matter the outcome, there would be a full declaration of victory for Clinton by the media. They’d have to spin it that way for fear of being repudiated both on Hillary AND on Obama in 2008 (not to mention 2012). So that possibility might scare away potential primary winners from selecting Palin as a VP selection. But that doesn’t stop them from pulling in her potential supporters, which could strengthen their own positions in the primaries. Newt Gingrich has, in light of flagging support as Santorum and Paul have had mini-surges mentioned her name as a possible VP choice. Maybe the mention is all he’ll do, but her supporters are clearly viewed by more than just Newt as a significant group of the electorate worth capturing.

What about Palin herself? Is an endorsement and a VP slot her logical path forward? Is she more interested in writing books and TV appearances, or perhaps another path back – say a senate seat from Arizona or Alaska? Regardless of the latter option, she has been widely touted as a possible Kingmaker. She can still endorse someone and not look for a VP slot. It’s also not as if the only slot available is VP. It’s hard to argue the conservative mantra of “drill baby, drill” wouldn’t make her a good fit for the Energy Secretary in a country starved for oil and all too dependent on the Middle East.

Based on the myriad of possibilities for Palin, it’s difficult to predict her path and possible endorsements, hence the whole wild card notion. But there are some distinct options available.

  1. She could endorse a candidate now or at some point prior to the nomination being locked up. 
  2. She could wait until after the primaries and endorse a candidate before the convention. 
  3. She could endorse a candidate after the convention. 
  4. She could hope for a brokered convention and hope to emerge unexpectedly as the nominee.

Those are listed in what I believe are descending order of impact and therefore descending order of likelihood. Having dropped out of the race after a three year tease of her supporters, Palin needs to do something to return to their good graces if she wishes to continue a political career – heck, even a career as an influencing agent of the national discussion. Even a career as a pundit won’t be helped by timidity on her part.

It also appears as if she’s not being timid, having already suggested two candidates drop out of the race. With the first three options leading to a potential slot somewhere in a post 2012 Republican White House, and the second and third option seemingly already off the table with Palin wading into the recommendation waters already, and options one and four not being mutually exclusive, here’s my thoughts on what Palin will do, and the possible impact of that. Palin will make an endorsement prior to the field being completely shaken out. Her opportunity to endorse comes down to Romney or Not Romney. She can use the opportunity to muddy the field and hope for a brokered convention where she emerges on the ticket as the presidential or VP nominee (not highly likely) or endorses a candidate in exchange for a promise for her to be included as the VP nominee or as a cabinet secretary. The difference between the VP nod and the cabinet nod depends on how much of a long view she is taking.

The remaining question is whether she will endorse Romney or someone else. There are conflicting clues to the resolution of that question. She certainly cannot see Mitt Romney as someone who agrees with her on a number of Tea Party conservative issues. Yet she ran with RINO John McCain, and her recommendation for South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has surprisingly endorsed Mitt Romney. If Palin endorses Mitt Romney now, it may be enough to push him over the top and seal the race early on. It would certainly clarify her motivation (unless she believes a drawn out race ensures an Obama re-election). An endorsement of Romney would be enough of a boost to garner her some sort of slot in the administration. On the other hand, Michele Bachmann could be angling for the VP slot and that may be the only slot Palin is interested in. Furthermore, she risks her credibility as a true conservative by endorsing a North-eastern liberal Republican and could drive herself further out of the potential of a future within the Republican party. An endorsement of Romney is a potentially high risk / high reward scenario for Palin.

An endorsement of any other Top 4 candidate could serve her in the same way – with a potential VP slot or a cabinet spot, but in terms of the race, it would certainly provide a significant barrier to Mitt Romney. A well-timed endorsement could lead to the domino effect of the other not Romney candidates clustering around the leading Not Romney candidate. It could turn quickly into a two man race. That would be the best outcome for the Republicans. A two person race for the Democrats in 2008 provided both candidates with a lot of media face time and arguably the battle between Obama and Clinton helped the Democrats in 2008 rather than hurt them. A two person GOP race in 2012, with a lot of sound bites would help the eventual GOP nominee, even with the media looking to spin the sound bites to Obama’s favor.

With Mitt Romney having an insurmountable lead in New Hampshire, an endorsement prior to New Hampshire of Mitt Romney by Sarah Palin makes no sense unless he wins in Iowa. A post Iowa endorsement helps Romney with momentum between the two dates and is not so late that it becomes a non-factor. Even so, the likely Romney endorsement would come after South Carolina and before Florida to help push Romney over the Florida hump versus Gingrich. While probably damaging Palin herself, it could very possibly ensure a Romney win.

If on the other hand the endorsement is going to go to a Not Romney candidate she’s left with Gingrich, who mentioned her name, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. I can’t see her backing Santorum or Paul because they in the long run, can’t win the nomination. Paul’s candidacy is unsustainable among Republicans and Santorum has been down so far for so long, he lacks the infrastructure that he will need over the next six months to pull off a win. That leaves Perry and Gingrich. Gingrich is a more obvious fit since he’s mentioned her already and has leads in South Carolina and Florida. An endorsement of him would be more impactful in delegate math than an endorsement for Perry. Additionally, Perry likely has a significant chunk of Palin supporters. I suspect her endorsement if not Romney, would go to Gingrich and would most effectively be timed between South Carolina and Florida. Between the two likely endorsements – Gingrich and Romney, it’s a toss-up as to which one she’d more likely back. My gut tells me Not Romney wins out, but she is a wild card in 2012.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump truly is a wild card. He has no significant political experience but flirted with running in the GOP primaries before dropping out of the race. That was before threatening that if the GOP nominee wasn’t one of his choosing, he’d run as an independent.

Does Donald Trump want to be president? I’m sure from an ego perspective the answer is yes, but from a practical perspective I’m pretty sure he has no interest. Could Donald Trump, who supported and donated to Obama in 2008, be a GOP Manchurian candidate and not really a conservative? Absolutely. From day one I regarded his campaign with suspicion and his actions point to not ever being a serious Republican.

From bringing up the Obama birth certificate issue when most conservatives had discarded the idea as conspiracy theory, he dragged the fringe element of conservatives back into the limelight. Conveniently, this enabled president Obama to be ‘forced’ to bring out his birth certificate and thereby discredit all conservatives because of the crazy element that was hogging the spotlight with the outlandish Trump. If Donald Trump had these concerns in reality, he would have brought them up in 2008 instead of supporting Obama. It wasn’t like the issue didn’t exist in 2008. Next Trump entered the GOP melee in a time period that coincided with his show the Apprentice and used the opportunity to promote himself and his show. Slick promotion but not at all friendly to the Republican Party - the GOP is not a toy for Donald Trump. While that isn’t necessarily anti-Republican, it is most definitely not Republican friendly.

Finally, Trump’s pronouncements about taking all of the oil from Iraq are downright crazy. This isn’t the 1400’s winner-takes-all-the-spoils-of-war. Iraq was rightly or not, an exercise in nation building – for Iraq, not America. Either Trump fails to see the folly of those suggestions or is being deliberately obtuse. Again it reflects poorly on the GOP when he claims to be one of them.

With all of that anti-Republicanism in his actions (not words), he certainly could be looking into running the race as an independent to ensure that enough anti-Obama votes get sucked out of the GOP universe and ensure an Obama re-election. But Trump has stated a specific reason to run as an independent candidate if the GOP nominates the wrong guy. He wants someone who will not give the keys to the nation to China. While his outlook may be simplistic, the notion that China is getting away with economic murder is not entirely without merit. It may indeed be driving his decision to run.

The real question for Trump as a wild card is whether he will run as an independent or not. The only clear weak on China candidate is Huntsman, who has no chance of being the nominee. Anyone else has expressed concerns about China and while not being concrete enough for Trump, has time to address publicly or even privately, those issues to avoid a Trump run.

That only leaves Trump room to run if he really is trying to help Obama. But running for president is an expensive proposition. Even if Trump loves Obama, would he want to spend time and treasure looking to run with no chance of winning and only hurting the GOP nominee (even if that is his unspoken goal)? Trump is a businessman. The return on that investment doesn’t add up under any circumstances, regardless of whether Obama wins or not. Trump isn’t drilling for oil off the coast of Brazil, so what is his payback from Obama? It’s hard to see. Conversely, if he wants Obama defeated, running third party does not help him.

The bottom line, my prediction is that Donald Trump will not run as a candidate for president. He will play with the idea as long as it keeps his name in the news, but ultimately he will fade out of the picture over the summer and endorse a candidate Obama or the GOP nominee, come October. Why? Because it helps his TV show. There are two other wild cards I intended to deal with but I’ve expended a significant amount of effort and space on Palin and Trump, so I’ve decided to create a Part 2b - GOP primaries – The Wildcards to look at Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

That post will hopefully come before the caucuses in Iowa end tonight and then Part 3 will have to wait until tomorrow.

UPDATE: Part 2b will be postponed until tomorrow as I focus on the caucus news tonight.

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