Is Sarah Palin Lucky or Savvy?

(AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
How is it best to interpret Sarah Palin's re-emergence onto the political scene -- and its implication for the 2012 presidential race?

Either Sarah Palin is lucky, she's savvy, or she's been blessed by God. I believe that she's been lucky -- as do most Republicans who form the party establishment that she rails against.

Palinites believe she's savvy -- taking advantage of opportunities and building a movement -- and doing so with knowledge aforethought.

Palin herself has said she is following the blueprint that God has laid down for her; her political pathway is being lit by lamps supplied by the divine. Interpreting the diety is above my pay grade, so we're left with asking whether Palin is lucky -- in which case she will find herself in a precarious position when the hard campaigning really starts -- or she is savvy, in which case she has a chance to win the Republican nomination.

The case for luck is simple: the tea-party movement happens to the slice of the American electorate that she talks to -- middle-to-lower class white exurbanites over the age of 30. Folks who feel economic dislocation and blame it on intrusion, either by immigrants, diversity or Washington; folks who distrust elite wisdom and are attracted to people who like to spit in the eye of people who condescend to them.

Given how clear Palin's message is – Obama & Washington = bad / your values = good, and given how fascinated the whole country is with her -- anything she says is going to receive significant attention. The flame burns white hot now -- and the argument from luck suggests that Palin is at the apex of her power.

Not since the New Deal has conservative populism succeeded -- unless you count Richard Nixon's Silent Majority. I don't count Ronald Reagan's conservatism -- which had populist elements to it, but was much broader and more encompassing.

If the Tea Party movement overreaches -- if Americans begin to find it more indecent than curious -- than these voters could simply transfer their allegiance from a movement to a person. And there is no person whose life experiences -- which include a bruising fight with elites – are better suited than Palin to connect.

Conservatives and Democrats differ on the some of the details of this theory, but it's the one they most subscribe to.

Now let's consider the case for Palin's savviness.

(AP)
Number one: she is continuously underestimated, something she uses to her advantage. Expectations are very low. And Palin can be vague. She can communicate using the character limits of Twitter. She can attend the Daytona 500 and the nation's top bowling conference, slowly building a solid primary base of exurbanites. And she is doing it on the cheap by accepting invitations to speak, using the free media that Fox provides her and weighing into controversies by being deliberately outrageous.

In this scenario, her decision to post on Facebook about "death panels" was a stroke of genius. She'll blow away the primary crowd, and then -- with expectations so low -- she'll pivot and demonstrate to the country that she has a sunny, aspirational vision for the future.

Sound far-fetched? Then again, ask yourself about the political circumstances President Obama found himself in at this point in the 2008 cycle -- that would be 2006. He was riding a wave of base popularity because of his opposition for the Iraq war -- but the establishment saw him as a one-shot pony and others quietly believed that if he were to run, he would split the party in half.

Comparing Palin to Obama -- I'm not going there. What I am saying is that is not beyond the realm of possibility that the political world, which likes to fit people into boxes, which likes to find candidates to full ideological spaces, will be confounded once again.

Enthusiasm drives paradigm shifts -- that's one thing we've learned from campaigns past. Palin is a true outsider -- more so than just about any other GOP presidential candidate. She lacks credentials to be president -- and that endears her to the people she is courting. Those credentials -- particularly after a reign of technocracy and a Harvard lawyer in the White House -- are inherently suspect to a large portion of the Republican base.

I can see how Sarah Palin runs for president, and either flames out spectacularly, or wins the nomination. Beyond that, the picture is much fuzzier. The electorate, no matter how skewed it is, creates certain threshold levels for potential presidential candidates to cross. It is possible that Palin crosses the threshold over the course of an arduous campaign. It's a threshold that I think will include a demonstration of some significant intellectual capacity and, at some point, a demonstration of independence from her base.

But then again, what do I know? I'm just an elitist...

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In Full: Palin's Tea Party Speech


The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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