Palin the GOP’s Future? Don’t Bet on It

By Garry South

October 23, 2008


Many of my down-in-the-mouth Republican friends, contemplating the ongoing implosion of John McCain’s campaign, are consoling themselves with the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin represents the future of the party. She’s the new rock star in the firmament of the Grand Old Party, they’re convinced — and she certainly will be the presumed favorite for the Republican nomination in 2012.

All I can tell them is, don’t bet the bank on it. (OK, maybe under our economic circumstances that’s not quite the right choice of terminology, but you know what I mean.) During my lifetime (I was born in 1951), only one nonincumbent vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket — Bob Dole, who ran with President Gerald Ford in 1976 — has ever come back to win their party’s nomination, and none has ever been elected president.

In 1956, Sen. John F. Kennedy, then 39, ran for the Democratic vice presidential nomination at the national convention and finished second to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. It was a lucky loss for JFK, because second-time Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson and Kefauver went on to get trounced 57-42 by President Dwight Eisenhower. If then-Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts had succeeded in his effort to be placed on the ticket, we may never have heard from him again, in light of subsequent history.

In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon chose a Boston Brahmin, former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who was serving as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., as his running mate. They got beat, of course, by JFK. In 1964, Lodge actually won the New Hampshire primary in a surprise as a write-in candidate while still serving as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, defeating declared candidates Nelson Rockefeller, then the governor of New York, and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. But he dithered from that point about whether to actively seek the nomination, did poorly in succeeding primaries, and Goldwater won the party’s nod.

In 1968, Maine’s Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie, with his craggy, Lincoln-esque visage, comported himself well in a losing cause as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s running mate. Given Humphrey’s narrow loss to Nixon, most Democrats and the media assumed Muskie would be the odds-on favorite for the 1972 Democratic nomination.

Although Muskie won the Iowa caucuses that year, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, a dark-horse candidate and ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, did well and came out of the state with momentum. Muskie also won the New Hampshire primary — barely — but his campaign collapsed altogether several weeks later when he was filmed crying over a published attack on his wife.

And 1972 also provides the next case study in failed vice presidential nominees. McGovern was forced to abandon his first choice for a running mate, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, over revelations that the latter had undergone shock therapy for depression. As a replacement, McGovern chose Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law whom JFK had appointed as the first director of the Peace Corps.

The ebullient, likable Shriver waged an energetic and optimistic campaign in the face of a hopeless cause. (As a college student, I helped arrange a rally for Shriver on the campus of the University of Montana.) But when he himself ran for the 1976 nomination, his campaign went nowhere, and another lesser-known candidate, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, walked away with the nomination.

The first woman ever to serve on a major-party ticket, of course, was New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Although the bright, feisty congresswoman briefly energized the Democratic base, especially women voters, President Ronald Reagan ultimately annihilated her and Walter F. Mondale. Not only did Ferraro never run for president herself, she also lost two subsequent Democratic primary campaigns for the U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998, which ended her political career.
In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis put Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket. Bentsen, a stately Southern gentleman, produced one of the most memorable moments of the campaign when he snapped back at Dan Quayle during their debate: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was my friend. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Although, as with Muskie in 1968, Bentsen was considered by many to be more presidential in bearing than his running mate, he considered but ultimately abandoned a quest for the 1992 nomination.

The most recent examples of this phenomenon occurred in 2004 and 2008. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore tapped Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman for his ticket. I was heavily involved in that campaign, and Lieberman, the first Jewish member of a national major-party ticket, was a very solid player out on the trail. I personally believe he was one reason Gore actually won the popular vote, given his reassuring, avuncular manner and upright personal appeal in more conservative-leaning areas.

In 2003, once it became clear Gore wouldn’t run again, Lieberman announced he would seek the Democratic nomination. (I served as a senior adviser in that campaign.) Though Lieberman led in almost all national polls up through the fall of that year, he bypassed the Iowa caucuses, finished fifth with only 8.5 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and did not win a single state before he pulled out of the race. One of the oft-made comments I heard was, “I think the world of Joe, but he and Gore had their chance, and I want to move on to a fresh face.”

Sen. John F. Kerry, of course, won the Democratic nomination in 2004 and designated North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his No. 2. Although Edwards also campaigned admirably in a losing cause, we all know he then sought the 2008 nomination and failed to carry a single primary or caucus — including in his native South Carolina, which he had won in 2004 — before he dropped out.

Even sitting vice presidents haven’t fared well over the past 50 years when seeking the presidency. Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960, Humphrey got beat by Nixon eight years later. Gore, of course, also was defeated in the Electoral College in 2000. The only exception in the past 172 years was George H.W. Bush in 1988, who became the first sitting vice president to be elected president in his own right since Martin Van Buren in 1836.

Walter Mondale, after going down the tubes with Jimmy Carter in 1980, did win the Democratic nomination four years later in a hard-fought contest with Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who had won the New Hampshire primary. But he then lost 49 states in the general election — hardly a comforting precedent.

Dan Quayle, beaten badly along with the elder Bush in 1992, tried to run for the GOP nomination in 2000, but he finished eighth in the Ames, Iowa, Republican straw poll in August 1999 and withdrew from the race a month later.

Despite McCain’s continued gushing about the brilliance of his picking Palin, it is crystal clear that she has in fact become a major liability and drag for the Republican ticket. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 55 percent think she’s unqualified to be president, and carries the only net-negative rating (38-47) of the four major-party candidates. That survey also found that Palin’s qualifications to be president now rank as the voters’ top concern about McCain — even ahead of his continuing George W. Bush’s policies. The latest New York Times/CBS poll shows Palin with the highest negative for a vice presidential candidate in the 28-year history of the survey — higher even than the hapless Dan Quayle’s in 1988.

Palin’s high-pitched, nasal voice and backwoods pronunciations, which seem to be channeling Frances McDormand in “Fargo,” are among the factors that have diminished any sense that this is a serious person (is her name really Paling, and she’s just dropping the final “g”?). Not to mention, of course, her disastrous, deer-in-the-headlights interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, her inability to name any newspapers or periodicals she regularly reads and her shockingly ignorant statement about a vice president being “in charge” of the U.S. Senate.

In addition, Palin’s flirty, vampish demeanor — including the winking and lip-licking — while perhaps titillating the middle-aged white guys who attend her rallies (and which may have snagged her second place in the Miss Alaska pageant), is a huge turnoff to most of the smart independent and even moderate Republican women I know. Several of my GOP women friends all piled in a car recently and headed to Nevada to campaign for Barack Obama, such is their sense of indignation and disgust that Palin was supposed to appeal to them.

And the recent revelation that the Republican National Committee has spent $150,000 to doll her up in fancy duds from high-end emporiums like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s has taken a further toll on Palin’s already tarnished image. Some well-dressed Wal-Mart mom, huh?

After the McCain-Palin ticket gets its head handed to it next week, I suspect Palin will snag a lucrative book deal from some right-wing publisher and go on the rubber-chicken circuit, giving paid speeches to adoring conservative gatherings. She will continue to be the ethically challenged governor of the 47th-largest state, of course, with fewer residents than Barack Obama’s old Illinois state Senate district. Maybe now she will even have time to actually visit that Alaskan island in the Bering Sea from which you can see the Russian landmass.

But in the end, I believe Palin’s 15 minutes of shaky, flaky fame as the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket will end up much like her college career did — leaving no footprints. An Oct. 21 piece in the Los Angeles Times noted that she “left behind few traces” at the four colleges she attended over five years and that interviews with dozens of professors “yielded not a single snippet of a memory” about Palin. Likewise, her run for veep, I predict, will turn out to be little more than a brief historical footnote.

And if the Republican Party truly believes it has to stake its very future on such a vacuous, flash-in-the-pan Tina Fey impersonator as Sarah Palin, you can betcha the party is facin’ bleak times, fer shure.