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Reining In the Rogue

Now that we are not coping with the phenomenon of a national debate over a Bristol Palin victory in Dancing With the Stars, Palin-mania can focus on more Sarahcentric topics, like the former governor's own TV reality show, or her new book, or the possibility that she's getting serious about running for president of the United States.

The conjunction of all these phenomena seems to have Republican insiders very worried. There were already reports prior to the midterm elections that the Great Big Grownups of the GOP were talking to each other about how to prevent a Palin nomination in 2012, considered a potential disaster by those who look at general election trial heats.

But the latest shot across Palin's bow came from an unusual source: the Weekly Standard, edited by one of her earliest and staunchest conservative allies, Bill Kristol. The Standard's resident semi-satirist, Matt Labash, penned a reasonably nasty review of Sarah Palin's Alaska that concluded with the assertion that even her Tea Party fans don't really want her to make a 2012 run.

GOP heretic David Frum sees this as the shape of things to come:

There really is a GOP party establishment. That establishment took up Palin as a useful tool in 2008, deployed Palin as an edged anti-Obama weapon in 2009 - and is now horrified to see that they may have set in motion a force possibly too powerful to halt when its time has ended. The story of the behind-the-scenes struggle to squelch Palin - and her ferocious determination not to be squelched - will be the big GOP-side story of the coming year.

Could this effort actually work, or will it just feed Palin's power to act as the voice of grassroots conservatives who are tired of being told to keep licking envelopes and let the Great Big Grownups figure out how to seize power? Steve Kornacki of Salon thinks criticism of Palin by conservatives might actually be effective by placing her in some perspective other than as the victim of elitist liberals--but only if it's systematic and high-profile:

Palin's poll numbers with the GOP base will only ebb if base voters are exposed, more than once and from more than one voice, to criticisms of her. They don't have to be harsh, Frank Rich-esque denunciations; just gentle but insistent reminders that maybe she's not suited to represent the party on its national ticket again.

This is a delicate task, obviously. As I've written, the GOP base has rarely been more eager to defy the party establishment than it is today. There is a strong temptation among conservative voters to label inconvenient information the product of the liberal media, or of RINOs. A negative review of Palin's show from one Weekly Standard writer is noteworthy, but by itself won't do much. Will Rush Limbaugh ever weigh in and say, "I love Sarah Palin and I hate what the liberals have done to her, but I'm just not seeing her as the nominee"? Will hosts on Fox News, her current employer, start conveying this message? Will Fox's "straight" newscasts begin touting stories that play up her general election vulnerabilities?

The other factor, of course, is how Palin reacts to conservative criticism. Perhaps she'll get off reality TV and do some mildly gravitas-building exercises; it's not like she has a particularly high bar to overcome in raising her game. But ultimately, her fate is closely bound up in the question of how the GOP deals with the contradictory passions it has aroused. If its leaders get serious about taking one path or another out of the incoherent policy agenda they've set for themselves, then some elements of the party base are sure to be disappointed. And if those elements include the vengeful grassroots activists who think their day in the sun has finally come, then Palin or someone much like her will always have a political base that no amount of mockery from the Grownups will be able to tame.