Pundits feel compelled to analogize every political figure or race to another pol or election. They debated whether 2010 was like 1994 or not. (Turns out it was like 1938.) Marco Rubio is like Barack Obama, except he hasn’t spent a career writing about himself, embraces American exceptionalism, and isn’t running for president now that he’s just been elected to the U.S. Senate.
So it is with Sarah Palin. She is wont to invoke Ronald Reagan as her model, but is this the Reagan of 1976, a base favorite who took on the party establishment and lost, or the Reagan of 1980, who took the party by storm and pivoted to win over what would become the Reagan Democrats? Richard Wolffe on Meet the Press invoked the memory of Howard Dean — a grassroots favorite who blew himself up during his primary run and would have been a problematic general-election candidate. But of course, all these are inexact comparisons because there has never been a political figure like Palin — a celebrity of this ilk who combines brilliant political instincts and confounding shortcomings.
Yes, history is a useful guide to the future, except when it isn’t and when there are lots of histories to guide us. The mistake that pundits make — because it reveals their prognostications to be nothing more than mere guesses and demonstrates that political “science” is a misnomer – is to minimize the importance of individual personalities and actual races. It is the human effort and the running of the race that decides elections, although demographics, unemployment figures, and the like help shape the playing field. We’re not going to know anything about Palin’s chances unless and until we see her going toe to toe with reporters, opponents, and debate moderators, and until it’s clear whom she’s running against and how they run their races.
What we can say is that Palin is not Reagan or Dean or anyone else. And 2012 will be exactly like no other race in history. The idiosyncratic nature of presidential politics, especially in a 24/7 news environment, makes us appreciate how deliciously unpredictable politics can be. As an intensely human endeavor, how could it be otherwise?