03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin Is Nixon, Minus The Smarts

Sarah Palin's rhetoric against the East and West Coast elites -- and liberal media -- appeals to aggrieved "ordinary Americans", in her phrase. Sounds like "middle Americans" and "the silent majority." Sarah Palin meet Richard Nixon. So alike. But.

As Palin selectively tours the country with her talking points and book -- one and the same -- she's anything but subtle. Taking off from her famous campaign references to "real Americans" and Obama "paling around with terrorists", she's an exemplar of the politics of resentment, of attempting the political math of addition by division:

-"I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fat resume that's based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles." (Palin on The O'Reilly Factor, 11/20/09).

-"The enlightened elites want to tell you to sit down and shut up. But the way forward is to stand and fight." (Palin in Going Rogue).

This is little more than Nixon Redux. He started it in the 1950s, when he famously went after Gov. Adlai Stevenson for his "Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment" Then in his years in the wilderness from '63-'68 and as president in '69-'73, Nixon stuck closely to the "postitive polarization" strategy honed by young speechwriter Pat Buchanan. He again and again slyly salted the wound of us-them opened up by Vietnam and the Sixties culture wars. "It is my belief that the seeds of civil anarchy would never have taken root in this country had they not been nurtured by scores of respectable Americans: public officials, educators, clergymen, and civil rights leaders as well."

But Palin is, ultimately, no Nixon.

First, RN was vastly more experienced and sophisticated. Her two years as governor of Alaska can't compare to Nixon's two decades-plus of legislative and executive experience by the time of his presidential win, not to mention travels around the world and country at the highest levels. And corrupt antisemite that he was, his worst enemies never questioned his intelligence or skill. Should he have been asked what he reads, he'd have a convincing answer.

Second, RN could feint or go left to appear more mainstream -- see his creation of EPA, OSHA, and advocacy (for a time) of a guaranteed income and affirmative action. When has Palin ever shown such a moderating inclination?

And third, 2008-09 isn't 1968-69. Starting with the Watts riots in 1965 and then continuing with the generational divide of a war with ten times the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, America was then deeply divided by cavernous cultural and military and racial differences, not Beck's and Limbaugh's faux populist rants in pursuit of ratings. Richard Perlstein's brilliant "Nixonland" last year had chapter and verse about what a different time that was, with all due respect to today's tea-partiers and birthers and budget balancers.

So Palin may have 100% recognition and a devoted base, but she lacks the skill and era to become a serious presidential contender. Sure other conservative Republicans will try to straddle the Right and the Center to win a conservative nomination and then an non-conservative general election, but she's too light and unpopular to pull that off. When a national politician is, say, a little known Jimmy Carter at 3% in national polls, s/he has the potential to grow into a serious candidate with both the right theme and an early primary win. But when you start nationally with a 53%-28% favorable-unfavorable ratio in the September, 2008 Gallup Poll, yet now you're down to 34%-55% (Bloomberg), you're in Gingrich territory, always able to get on Fox but not dig out of a deep hole dug by the shovel of a polarizing personality.

Palin therefore could theoretically win a plurality of Iowa Republicans (where her favorables among only Republicans are at Huckabee/Romney levels) but, unlike Nixon at the height of LBJ's Vietnam War, not an electoral college majority. She's a bona fide celebrity, not a bona fide general election candidate. She can sell 2 million books but not win 60 million votes. And if she is lured by the adoring crowds of 2009 into running in 2012, she'll only spark a bonfire to her vanity.