THE PLANK NOVEMBER 23, 2009
Ross Douthat's column in today's New York Times makes the perfectly sensible point that Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have decided to use their fame to become bigger celebrities, rather than more policy-oriented, serious public figures. Huckabee hosts a (perversely enjoyable) television show on Fox News, and Palin has a new book out (or so I've heard). Douthat writes:
For Palin, the serious path required at least serving out her term as governor before returning to the national stage. For Huckabee, it could have involved anything from starting a think tank to running for the Senate in 2010. For both, it would have meant wedding their political identity to ideas as well as attitudes.So far, they’ve chosen celebrity instead...
But they were the wrong moves if either wanted to become president someday. Huckabee’s gabfest is a weekly reaffirmation of the rap that he’s too lightweight for the Oval Office. Palin has sealed her identity as a culture-war lightning rod: she can inspire hysteria from liberals (ably catalogued in Matthew Continetti’s “Persecution of Sarah Palin”) and adulation from conservatives (visible at every stop along her book tour), but she’s unlikely to persuade anyone in the middle to trust her with the reins of government.
Douthat then contrasts them to Obama, who did not allow his celebrity status to get in the way of his wonkishness and seriousness.
The first problem with this argument is that, er, Palin is unlikely to become a policy wonk because she is not very smart. What's more, Douthat's argument is tautological. Sure, it would be nice for the GOP if Palin and Huckabee were interested in policy. But if they were interested in policy, then they would not be so appealing to the GOP base. In other words, the problem is that a large part of the right has no interest in a policy wonk, and sneers at intellectuals and elites and the types of people Douthat would like to see running the party. A candidate who was interested in learning the ins and outs of the welfare state and health care policy is unlikely to ever achieve Palin/Huckabee levels of popularity with the grassroots.