Wanted: a Republican Lady Gaga for 2012

Neil Macdonald on Barack Obama's potential challengers for 2012.

My colleague Dana Milbank at the Washington Post has tried to declare February a "Palin-free month." He's urging his fellow commentators to take a hiatus from the high-wattage Tea Party queen.

Sorry, Dana. No can do.

Not that I don't sympathize with Milbank's plight.

Palin buttons on sale outside the Safari Club International convention in Reno, Nevada in January 2011. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)

"I have a Sarah Palin problem," he says. "I feel powerless to control my obsession, even though it cheapens and demeans me."

Milbank has even self-diagnosed the cause of his addiction: simply including Sarah Palin's name in an online headline guarantees a huge spike in reader hits.

People seem either to adore or loathe her, and Palin herself diligently feeds the beast with a steady stream of incendiary (and sometimes grammatically or historically twisted) tweets, quotes, bites and TV blather.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made a somewhat similar pitch to the nation's reporters regarding Palin: "Stop acting as if she's the most important conservative politician in America," he wrote.

"Stop pretending that she has a plausible path to the presidency in 2012. (She doesn't.) Stop suggesting that she's the front-runner for the Republican nomination. (She isn't.)"

OK. But Palin is by far the most famous conservative figure in America right now (admittedly, perhaps, because of the symbiotic media relationship Milbank is trying to forswear).

And, more importantly, she consistently scores high in popularity polls among Republicans.

That the GOP would actually pick her to run against Barack Obama is every political journalist's most humid professional fantasy (again, see Milbank's logic), and most probably President Obama's, too.

Whether that will actually happen is another matter altogether.

Sarah's mini-me

"I don't even think she'll run," says political scientist Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics and, according to the Wall Street Journal, "probably the most quoted college professor in the land."

Minnesota Republican Michelle Bachmann at an anti-health-care law rally on Capitol Hill in November 2009. (Reuters)

As he sees it, Palin has become too rich and too influential by starring in her own reality show, appearing as a paid pundit on Fox News, and by making speeches and writing books about the importance of the flag, religion and family.

Why walk away from that?

Plus, even her fans, polls suggest, doubt she is presidential timber.

"There are just too many Republicans who say they like her," Sabato told me, "but follow it up immediately by saying 'But I know she can't win in November and I don't want to give the election to Obama.' I've heard that a thousand times."

The same logic must also apply to Palin's mini-me, Michelle Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota.

Bachmann is also an expert headline-grabber and has already visited Iowa, where the first of the presidential primaries will take place in just eleven months' time.

She actually upstaged her own party's official response to Obama's state of the union speech last month, delivering a separate address on behalf of the Tea Party in which she declared that America's founding fathers had worked tirelessly to abolish slavery.

She seemed unfazed by the general hilarity that remark provoked.

No Lady Gagas

Picking a Palin or a Bachmann as the Republican standard bearer would mean "losing in a massive landslide," predicts Sabato.

But compared to Palin and Bachmann, the other prominent potential GOP nominees are dull as Washington's February skies.

That list includes former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former senator Rick Santorum.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who trailed the field badly in 2008, is a likeable, engaging fellow. But his base is principally religious and he seems to be enjoying his new life making lucrative speeches and hosting his own show on Fox News.

Pawlenty, replying recently to the knock that he lacks pizzazz, answered back: "Compared to who? I mean, you think about all the other people running.

Then Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty in 2008: No Lady Gagas in this race. (Jim Bourg/Reuters) (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

"With the possible exception of Mike Huckabee and Palin, there aren't exactly a bunch of Lady Gagas."

Will bland work?

Sabato actually argues that dullness may be the key to a Republican victory. Go dull and hope the economy remains awful.

Obama enjoys the advantage of incumbency and his personal approval ratings are relatively high.

But no president survives if the economy tanks, says Sabato, which means the Republicans will have their chance.

"As long as they nominate one of those dull candidates, he's in, if unemployment's still very high, or economic growth is very low or nonexistent."

So, step right up, Mitt Romney. He's rich and telegenic, and nowadays at least he tops the polls among Republicans when asked who should be the party's next nominee.

Or Mitch Daniels, the clearly competent, astoundingly dull, virtually unknown governor of Indiana. Or Chris Christie, New Jersey's governor.

At the moment, though, Pawlenty is right. There are no conservative Lady Gagas anywhere in sight.

Donald Trump, the merry loudmouth most famous for intoning "You're fired" on reality TV, has said he's considering a run. But nobody knows whether he's serious or just pulling another publicity stunt.

And there are some conservatives trying to drum up support for Glenn Beck, the far-far-far-right Fox TV host. But that ignores two realities: First, he's become really rich with his super-outrageous TV shtick and, second, his shtick is super-outrageous.

Fox News celebrity Glenn Beck at a 'Restoring Honour' rally in Washington in August 2010. Online supporters are building him a base. (Associated Press)

This is a guy who's been declaring lately that the uprising in Egypt isn't popular at all, but a coalition of lefties, feminists and Islamic radicals conspiring together to restore a dark-ages caliphate.

One suspects that sort of thing might be a difficult sell in the real world.

There is one man who bears watching, though. Even Sabato saves his kindest words for Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and the Republican party's undisputed intellectual leader.

"Admired by the base, eloquent speaker, presidential-level experience."

Gingrich carries some personal baggage, of course. (It turns out he was having an affair himself as he organized Bill Clinton's impeachment for having an affair.) But who doesn't come with baggage?

Still, Palin would be the most fun.

You betcha she would, Mr. Uppity-elite-lame-stream-media Dana Milbank. With Bachmann as her veep.