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Sarah Palin and the Republican Identity Crisis

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HBO's splendid movie Game Change tells the story of Sarah Palin's rise and fall as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential contest. It provides insight into the GOP's identity crisis that's produced this year's demolition derby in the Republican primaries.

Game Change asserts that Palin was a desperate choice by the McCain campaign. Because they needed a dynamic vice-presidential candidate to stop Barack Obama's momentum, McCain and his advisers rushed the process and did not adequately vet Palin. Then they discovered Palin had little knowledge of current events, much less foreign and domestic policy. At first they kept her isolated from the press and attempted to tutor her. When that didn't work, and she gave several disastrous interviews, they had her memorize a script and emphasized Palin's singular talent: "She's the best actress in American politics."

None of this is particularly new information to the political cognoscenti -- although the story is amplified by Julianne Moore's unerring portrayal of Palin. It illustrates the GOP has a fundamental flaw -- an identity crisis -- and the only way they can cover it up is to have an actor be their presidential candidate.

Consider the Republican candidates of the last thirty years: Ronald Reagan -- an actor and two-term president; George H.W. Bush -- not an actor and a one-term president who lost his reelection bid to actor Bill Clinton; Bob Dole -- not an actor and an unsuccessful candidate; George W. Bush -- an actor and two-term president; and John McCain -- not an actor.

Republicans must recruit an actor to be their presidential candidate because, at the national level, they have a near impossible task: unifying their diverse base and appealing to Independents. Republicans must nominate a candidate who is an actor, who projects different images to different voting blocs. That was true of Reagan -- voters didn't particularly like his policies but they loved the man. That was true of George W. Bush -- conservatives believed he was one of them, while Independents believed that he was outside the political mainstream: "a uniter, not a divider."

Game Change reminds us that McCain started his presidential campaign with two enormous problems: Republican social conservatives didn't trust him and he wasn't an actor -- he didn't have the ability to enthrall diverse groups. The selection of Palin as his VP running mate made sense because she immediately captured the hearts of social conservatives and she was an actor -- for an instant she appeared to capture the hearts of Independents.

New Yorker correspondent Ryan Lizza recently pointed out the obvious: the Republican base has become more conservative. The good news for the GOP is that their "intense policy demanders" are energized; the bad news is that their involvement means Republicans have moved farther away from the American mainstream. To win at the national level, the GOP needs an actor to both unify their base and bring in Independents. At the moment, they don't have one.

A Pew Research poll allocated likely 2012 voters to three groups: "Mostly Republican," 25 percent, "Mostly Independent," 35 percent, and "Mostly Democratic," 40 percent. The "Mostly Republican" group includes "Staunch Conservatives" (11 percent) and "Main Street Republicans" (14 percent). Staunch Conservatives are older white voters who "take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues -- on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns." Their favored candidate is Rick Santorum. Main Street Republicans are not as conservative, less concerned about social issues. Their favored candidate is Mitt Romney. Just outside the "Mostly Republican" group is a bloc of Independents, "Libertarians" (10 percent), that typically vote for the Republican presidential candidate. Their favored candidate is Ron Paul.

Romney is favored to win the Republican nomination but he's not an actor. He's unlikely to unify the GOP and also attract Independents. That's the political reality that Republican Party leaders will struggle with. They have four alternatives:

One is to abandon hope they will win the presidency and focus, instead, on Congress. That's the strategy advocated by conservative columnist George Will.

A second alternative would be to plan for a deadlocked convention and convince someone, an actor, to rise from the Republican ashes and become the nominee. In this context, Jeb Bush is frequently mentioned.

A third alternative would be for the GOP to accept Romney as the nominee and force him to accept a social-conservative VP running mate who is also an actor -- this season's Sarah Palin. That might be Michele Bachmann.

A fourth alternative would be for Republicans to muddle through their convention, nominate a ticket such as Romney and Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, and plan to defeat President Obama by suppressing the Democratic vote. Republicans would try to throw the election into the Electoral College and win the presidency by subverting the vote in swing states.

Because of their ideological identity crisis, Republicans have rough road ahead.

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