Why isn’t Sarah running?

I’ll take a crack at it.  Her CPAC speech today was a barn-burner, hitting every conservative, small-government point and pumping out soundbites that will no doubt resonate in the public dialogue for days to come.  Some of my favorites:

“Drain the Jacuzzi!”

“This government isn’t too big to fail, it’s too big to succeed.”

“We don’t want an economy built to last, we want an economy built to grow.”

“This is Obama’s Washington.”

I wonder, however, if one of the points she hammered throughout the speech really registered with her audience.  Her signature line in this speech was “The door is open.”  She meant that political conditions are becoming conducive to a renewed commitment to small government and liberty.  People’s mindsets are changing.  We are not governed by the “rules” of political seasons past; the door is open to choosing our candidates and charting our nation’s future on a different basis.  The door is open to not accepting a continuation of the false compromises of previous decades.

(As I go to press, I see that Tina Korbe picked up on this theme.)

I have referred to those false compromises – “compromises” in which the conservative, small-government side gave up virtually everything – as the “old consensus.”  I see it losing, bit by bit, in this primary season.  People are no longer obediently making their political choices within the parameters defined for them by the professional political class.

This doesn’t mean that the voters have ideal candidates with whom to make their statement against the old consensus.  Santorum and Gingrich both have their drawbacks, as Paul always has.  But a critical mass of voters has recognized that Romney is the old consensus, and they are rejecting it.  The CPAC vote was remarkable for Romney’s 38% — because it wasn’t bigger, because Santorum got 31%, and even Gingrich, in a conclave of the politically connected, got 15%.

Everyone outpolled Ron Paul at CPAC, even though he has regularly won the CPAC vote in the past.  This signals a change in the mindset of politically active conservatives – not merely a new perspective that it’s overwhelmingly important to defeat Obama, but a perspective that the core of the conservative movement is shifting, and we need a serious mainstream candidate because it is a life-or-death matter to be effective in the political process.

That obviously doesn’t mean the CPAC voters think we need a “moderate,” leadership- and media-approved candidate.  If it did, they would have gone for Romney, rather than voting 46% for the mainstream candidates who are not Romney – and who are perceived, in many if not all cases correctly, as less satisfied with and enthusiastically “managerial” about the matter of big government.

But the point to take away is that voter sentiment, as it relates to the meaning of different candidates and the basis of government, is changing.

And that, I think, is about half the reason why Sarah Palin didn’t throw her hat in the ring for this campaign cycle.  Her evaluation of political conditions is remarkably accurate and prescient:  she saw, long before most of the voters did, that the game of expectations itself needed to change, and that only we could do it.

What strategic value was there for Palin in participating in the Cynical Media Slime-fest and All-Out Kick-em-in-the-Nads, mud-slinging, business-as-usual, expectations-on-autopilot primary season?

Six or eight months ago, the sea change in the voters’ sentiments and propensities might have been foreseeable, but it hadn’t happened yet.  Those who think Palin could have won lots of primaries on the basis of pre-primary voter sentiments are wrong, I think.  After all, the business-as-usual approach – Karl Rove tells everyone how bad a candidate is, the media magnify his or her every quirk or mistake, the media and some (not all) of the other candidates pile on with allegations that range from hostile spin to outright falsehood – has so far felled our most conservative candidates.

But in the process, the voters have been changing.  That’s what Palin saw before others did.  Do I think she is counting the days to a brokered convention?  No.  There is no one who could reasonably adopt that as a “plan.”  She won’t run this year; that’s my rational assessment as well as my gut feeling.  (I could of course be wrong, although I think some big conditions will have to change more for that to be the case.)

But if she does run, it will not be because she has changed, but because we have.  There are political conditions in which she could run successfully, and conditions in which she couldn’t.  The latter have constituted our political environment up until the last couple of months.

If the conditions are changing now, I believe that is largely because voters are having to wise up to the flaws in our own thinking by going through this ugly spectacle.  We already knew that the media have no intention of giving our candidates a fair shake, and that many in the GOP leadership want to submarine the small-government conservatives.   What many voters didn’t understand is that if we want to select leaders of character, we have to graduate from high school, and overlook the vicissitudes of “presentation” that sometimes make good people look like buffoons to those who see without humility, mercy, or discrimination.  We have to see with better eyes.  We have to think independently of the jeers embedded in the media narrative.  We have to be wiser citizens, placing in political leadership only the hope that is appropriate to free men and women.

We can’t have a candidate who sounds like Mitt Romney, but will lead the way a small-government conservative would.  That’s not an option.  What we’re doing in this primary season is coming to grips with that reality.  I think Palin knew instinctively that we would have to, before it would make sense for her to jump back into the electoral fray.

But, as I said, I think that’s only about half the explanation.  The other half is that Palin is an evangelical Christian.  She believes God has a plan for her life, and that He gives her a certainty in her spirit about the big choices she has to make.  I suspect she has had a peaceful certainty that joining the campaign as a candidate for 2012 was not something she should do.  If she were to analyze it, she might say that God knows better than any of us how the voters’ concerns and expectations are going to change.

Meanwhile, the door is open.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.