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John W. Dean

Sarah Palin and The Dumbing Down of the American Presidency


Monday, November 29, 2010

Sarah Palin's new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag , was written for two reasons: to make money for the author (and publisher) and as a paean to her loyal supporters (who will surely buy a copy for themselves and a copy to give as a Christmas gift). If you have not noticed, Mrs. Palin is on a sixteen-state book tour. Given her racially-tinged attacks on President Obama in the book -- proving to her base that she will play the race card that other politicians will not -- many believe this is Sarah's opening salvo for a 2012 presidential run.

I disagree. So allow me a few preliminary thoughts about the coming presidential-election cycle, which is just now getting underway.

What Is Sarah Palin Doing?

I don't believe that Sarah Palin has a clue what she is doing -- other than making easy money, and more of it than she ever dreamed she might, by cashing in on her celebrity. She keeps those dollars coming her way by flirting with a presidential bid, for she is very savvy, and she knows that by playing this game, she keeps herself relevant, as well as in the news. I reached this conclusion just before the Thanksgiving holiday, when the New York Times Magazine did about as favorable a profile of Palin as she has received from any mainstream news outlet that is not owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The author of the Times piece, Robert Draper, a Texas-raised freelance writer who had done a largely favorable history of the Bush II presidency, appears to have had good access to Palin. Draper's kindly look at Palin, however, actually reveals that she is no more prepared (or qualified) to run a presidential race now than she was to run her vice- presidential race two years ago. While Palin clearly has the outsized personality and ego that are necessary for a person to want to attain the highest office in the land, she is conspicuously lacking in presidential skills. If she could get the GOP nomination without a fight, or with just a little fracas, she would take it. But she has yet to show the stuff that is truly needed to win a nomination.

More importantly, too, Palin has shown -- as several Nixon biographers have mentioned to me since she entered the political arena in 2008 -- a decidedly Nixonian nature. But as one historian, who understands Nixon well, noted, Palin has "all Nixon's downsides without his upside, because she lacks his knowledge and intellect." I agree.

In truth, it is way too early to know what might happen in 2012. But it is not too early to think about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a Sarah Palin run for the presidency.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Of A Palin Presidential Bid

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, and Jeb Bush have all agreed that rather than fight with "momma grizzly," they will help her get the nomination and win the contest with President Obama. (If you think that could really happen, then you have overdosed on tryptophan at Thanksgiving dinner, but we're only being hypothetical now, to get Sarah nominated for illustrative purposes.)

Some good would come of this, as follows: Vice President Joe Biden would likely become Secretary of State, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would surely become President Obama's running mate, as the vice-presidential nominee. This would nullify the gender issue, not to mention place in the contest a woman who is fully capable of taking over the presidency. Hillary would make Sarah appear second-rate, and the race would be over before it began. Moreover, Hillary's showing would very likely make her an even more viable future candidate.

The bad that would come from a Palin presidential bid, however, is that it would cheapen the office of the presidency. George W. Bush pushed his own brand of anti-intellectualism during his 2000 and 2004 presidential races. Unfortunately, that stance did not end with Bush's election and reelection; rather, he made this attitude part of his presidency. This is a troubling trend that has been growing since the Reagan years --as Elvin T. Lim has described in his book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George Bush. In short, a serious presidential bid by Palin would be a dumbing down of the presidency.

Finally, to complete our analysis of the good, the bad and the ugly, the ugly is what would follow a Palin candidacy. Such a race would be about as divisive as imaginable, because her supporters -- those Tea Party folks who are not always reasonable, and who keep talking about Second Amendment solutions and revolution -- do not care that she is totally unqualified for the job. Yet an overwhelming majority of Americans (between 67 percent and 71 percent) currently believe Palin is not qualified to be president. If she runs, there will an ugly standoff between die-hard Palin supporters and everyone else.

Do Not Worry About Sarah

Barbara Bush has it right: Palin should stay in Alaska -- at least for now. She is making millions upon millions of dollars. She can run her lucrative celebrity scheme for a couple of election cycles, and in 2016, she might be a viable candidate. She is learning now about the real world. She is doing some serious reading. She is not stupid, just more interested for the moment in making money while taking shots at the opposition from the sidelines, rather than entering the playing field.

To pursue the presidency, Palin needs to get serious and become somewhat more mainstream. A presidential race is not a reality show. Helping the GOP presidential candidate in 2012, and devoting herself to another round of boosting House and Senate candidates in 2012 and 2014, could stand her in good stead in 2016. Being a radical gets you the support of only about 25 percent of the voters -- those folks who would elect anyone who told them what they want to hear.

No one can win the presidency or govern the nation, however, with 25-percent support, particularly when that support is from those holding the most extreme views about government. But Palin can get a real education while playing the role she has assumed. For now, she would be quite smart to continue playing that role. Not only will it make her a fortune, so that she and her family will always live well, but it would also prepare her for a serious run for the presidency, ensuring that she would enter the arena after she has paid her dues, and acquired a true understanding of what is involved in governing the nation.

Do Worry About The American Presidency

We must stop encouraging candidates who require the dumbing down of the job of the nation's chief executive, because in the real world -- and I have been there -- you must know what you are doing (or be a very fast learner) to deal with the myriad difficult, and sometimes novel, issues that reach a president's desk. It is a tremendous challenge to face the day-to-day grind of running that office in a manner that actually serves the nation and the world.

My greatest worry with Barack Obama when he ran in 2008 was that if he won, he would not really be ready to govern. While he has great talent, desire, and intellect, he entered the job with little real experience. As is now clear, my concerns were well-placed, for he is still learning on the job, and he has yet to realize his great potential. Experience is needed not merely because the job is difficult and complex, but also due to the nature of the contemporary presidency.

There has been a pattern in recent history that goes as follows: We elect a conspicuously-able president and he does not magically cure all the nation's ills (for instance, Bill Clinton). Then, we elect a new president (for instance, George W. Bush) who is not so able, and who not only fails to solve all the problems before him, but also creates new problems. What no one seems to notice, in this pattern, is that the able presidents spend most of their time cleaning up the mess of their predecessors who were not so able. Thus, in dumbing the office down, we are creating a legacy of increasing the unsolved problems that call for presidential attention.

One thing I am confident Sarah Palin could do as President of the United States, and I find the thought of that prospect horrifying, would be to make a terrible (if not fatal) mess of things. She is not prepared to solve problems that have accumulated over the years. Nor would she be up to the task of governing, even if President Obama were somehow able to solve those inherited problems before he departed -- which will not happen either. It takes more than a 140-character tweet to be president.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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