Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 4: Is Sarah Palin Selfish?

Is Sarah Palin selfish?

At this point, I'm sure there already are scores of passionate Palin fans poised to swarm the comments section and call me a commie for merely mentioning such a treasonous proposition. But hear me out. First of all, I don't mean to suggest that Palin is personally selfish; anyone who has ably raised five children while running an entire state clearly cares about people other than herself. I mean politically selfish. Secondly, it's not really me—a member of the dreaded mainstream media—who's asking. It's powerful players in Washington. And these powerful players just so happen to be Republicans themselves.

Unlike the chaotic Democratic Party, the GOP is a top-down, wait-your-turn, establishmentarian organization. Three of the last four Republican presidents—Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I—ran for president and lost before they ran for president and won; all three of them spent the intervening years building the party from either inside (Bush) or outside Washington (Reagan, Nixon). The fourth Republican president—George W. Bush—had the same name as one of his predecessors and, as his son, had already spent considerable time in the White House. Even losing nominees (McCain, Dole) tend to be battle-tested, having served for decades in Washington and run for president before. This explains why failed 2008 presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney typically top the early lists of potential 2012 Republican presidential nominees. And it also explains why Huckabee and Romney are traveling around the country to fundraisers and handing out the money they've raised through their political action committees to Republican candidates in upcoming elections. They're amassing political capital and gathering chits that could boost their own future bids. 

Like Huckabee and Romney, Palin is traveling around the country. But unlike her potential 2012 rivals, she's not promoting other candidates; she's promoting herself. On Sunday, for example, Palin made her post-election debut in Iowa, appearing at Barnes & Noble in Sioux City to sign copies of her new book, Going Rogue. (Huckabee also has a book out; Romney's will be released in March 2010.) But as Politico's Jonathan Martin notes, "there were no meetings with influential local activists, no contact with the state GOP, nor any time devoted to chit-seeking efforts to raise cash for other candidates."

The contrast between Palin and her fellow 2012 contenders is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the spending habits of their respective PACs. So far for the 2009-2010 cycle, Romney's Free & Strong America PAC has given $70,717 to 24 different party entities or individual politicians, including Roy Blunt, Eric Cantor, and Bob McDonnell. That's about 2.3 percent of the $3.1 million he's raised. Likewise, Huckabee's HuckPAC has spread $15,500 of his $303,673 among 10 party entities or individual politicians, for a "party-building rate" of 5 percent. But while Palin has raised $732,767 since launching her SarahPAC last January, she's only burned through $276,200—a mere $10,000 of which went to other politicians, both of whom (John McCain and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski) already have relationships with the former Alaska governor. Which means, in effect, that Palin has spent $0 so far on party-building, networking and chit-seeking. In fact, she recently demanded $100,000 to speak at an influential Iowa Family Policy Center event—a gig that most presidential hopefuls gladly accept for free. At SarahPAC.com, there's no mention of other candidates. There is, however, a comprehensive schedule for Palin's book tour.

Keeping a tight grip on a PAC's purse strings or promoting a memoir isn't intrinsically wrong. But Palin's current "Palin First" strategy has left many professional Republicans a little unsettled. "I think any candidate who wants to be president in 2012 who does anything other than go out and build the party and help elect other candidates should be horsewhipped," says Grover Norquist. "Is it about 'me,' or is it about 'us'? [With Palin], we have yet to see. My question is, in the next 12 months, how many events does she do for candidates and the party that she doesn't charge for? How much money does she raise? What has she done to help build the broader movement? Writing a book doesn't do that."  Other Republicans I've spoken to agree, which is why so many establishment conservatives are taking a "To Be Determined" position on her viability for 2012.

Of course, the next presidential election is still a long way off, hence the whole "absurdly premature" nature of this column; Palin could very well turn on the spigot as 2010 approaches. But what's clear from her strategy so far—especially as compared to Romney's and Huckabee's—is that she sees no need to follow the same old dues-paying rules as her Republican forebears. Right now, Palin probably doesn't know what she wants to do next, so her main priority is building Brand Sarah into something strong enough to work in any number of different arenas: maybe politics, maybe advocacy, maybe even television. But if the Wasilla Wonder does decide to channel her popularity into a presidential bid, it'll be fascinating to watch how the establishment reacts. Not the "latte-sipping liberal elites" that Palin is so fond of mocking; we know what they'll say. I'm referring to the Republican establishment—the powerful players who will undoubtedly want favors, and money, and deference.

Going Rogue may be a good book title. Whether it's a good way to get the GOP nomination remains to be seen.  

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