It’s safe to say that Sarah Palin had a bad year, especially when you consider how it began for her. She started out on January First as a tea-party favorite, given some credit for the Republican wins in the 2010 election. She was associated with a few losses as well (Christine O’Donnell in Delaware comes to mind) but you could certainly argue that she was a net positive for the Republican party. Paul Goldman, former Chairman of Virginia’s Democratic Party, suggested that Palin was instrumental in keeping the conservatives from splintering in the 2010 midterm elections, encouraging tea partiers to choose the Republican party over truly independent alternatives.
But contrary to conventional wisdom, the 2008 vice presidential nominee has kept the party strong. How? She has kept the Tea Party faithful inside the GOP tent. Had she instead encouraged these disillusioned voters to mount third-party challenges across the 2010 general-election ballot, dozens of Democratic incumbents, not to mention challengers, would be smiling like Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
That year, a simmering feud between two wings of the Republican Party resulted in the “Bull Moose” independent presidential candidacy of former President Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider’s support four years earlier landed William Howard Taft the GOP nomination, but the two had a falling-out. Their disunity allowed Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, to claim the White House with the lowest winning percentage of the popular vote since the two-party era began in 1864. Wilson was only the second Democrat elected president since the Civil War; a GOP united by a temporary, even testy, marriage of convenience would have triumphed easily. But egos proved too large. It did not matter that Wilson was, in TR’s term, the “coiner of weasel words.”
Then Palin gave an awful response to the Tuscon, Arizona shooting. I can appreciate that she was put in an uncomfortable situation, blamed in some circles for a truly horrific act of violence, and that she was similarly maligned as the 2008 vice-presidential nominee. But this demonstrated her flaws as a political figure. She reacted badly to unfair attacks.
Throughout the year, Palin toyed with the idea of running for President. Then in November, she announced that she wouldn’t seek the office after all, in a way that really pissed off her bosses at Fox News. There were some suggestions that she had made the decision much earlier, and was toying with her supporters to make money and stay relevant. Lawrence O’Donnell noted that her personnel decisions were more appropriate for a celebrity than for someone building a political network. And John Stewart remembered that Palin’s daughter had said months earlier that the former Governor had made a decision.
I doubt that a presidential candidacy would have been successful. Palin would probably not have won the nomination, much less the general election, although this is also true of most candidates on the Republican presidential debate stage. For the last few years, she had been relevant as a potential presidential contender. This now raises the question: what is Sarah Palin’s future: political and otherwise?
There was some minor speculation that she might run for Senate in 2014 against Mark Begich, the Incumbent Democrat. But Palin’s politically toxic in her home state, after abandoning the governorship, and failing to adequately articulate why this was necessary. Then she backed Joe Miller for Senate against Lisa Murkowski, an Incumbent Republican. Miller won a close primary, but Murkowski still won the General Election as a write-in candidate. In that election, 66% of voters in the state voted against Palin’s surrogate, the nominee of the most powerful political party in the state. Polls consistently showed Palin losing her home state in a presidential election against Obama, so it would take a lot of effort to rebuild her image there.
She’s too closely associated with Alaska to successfully seek office in any other state. There was some speculation that she was buying a house in Arizona to campaign for Jon Kyl’s seat. While there would have been a novelty to both parts of the 2008 Republican presidential ticket representing the same state in the Senate, it doesn’t seem like this is going to happen. And there’s no indication that it would have worked, given the strong Republican bench in Arizona, and Palin’s limited ties.
Palin’s proud of her rogue reputation, which makes her unlikely to be chosen for any cabinet post in a Republican presidential administration. It just seems like a recipe for disaster, to have a Secretary of Energy (one of the few posts she might be qualified for) willing and possibly eager to publicly disagree with the President. Because of that and her toxic reputation with Independents, she also isn’t going to be anyone’s running mate.
I don’t see her winning a future open presidential primary. If Mitt Romney loses the General Election in 2012, Palin would have to compete in the 2016 cycle with the Republicans elected to statewide office in 2009 and 2010 (Marco Rubio, Scott Brown, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez) and probably some of the the top-tier Republicans who decided not to seek the presidencial nomination in the current cycle (Bobby Jindal, John Thune, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence.) Because of the offices they hold, these politicos will have more accomplishments between now and the 2016 primary. Palin’s resume isn’t going to get better than it is right now, and some of these candidates will be able to match what made Palin special in the last few years.
Gingrich’s presidential campaign, and brief moment of glory in the primary polls, demonstrates the advantages of sky-high name recognition. But it would be foolish for Palin to look at that, and assume that it means she has a shot at the White House at some point in the future. He’s been a national figure before as Speaker of the House. As architect of the Republican Revolution, he may have pulled off the most impressive political feat of the last fifty years, by engineering a Republican majority for the US House of Representatives following 40 years of Democratic control. He also spent the last decade building on his reputation as an idea guy for the Republican party.
You could argue that Romney is the only top-tier candidate in the current primary field, which has allowed multiple second-tier candidates an unparalleled opportunity to get national attention, alternatively topping the polls. No one should assume that there will be a similar opening at any point in the next two decades. In a race with several heavyweights (such as a hypothetical 2020 election between Vice President Chris Christie and Senate Majority Leader Marco Rubio), Palin is increasingly likely to be overshadowed. I don’t know if she’ll want to risk being completely ignored.
Her options for a public role outside of politics seem limited. Palin does have some history in broadcasting, but she doesn’t seem interested in what other people have to say. That makes her a poor choice to host a talk show. The novelty would probably wear off pretty quickly.
I don’t see any indication that Palin is capable of discussing current events for three hours a day. This makes her an unlikely selection for radio host.
It’s possible that this is her peak. She’ll be a political commentator, make occasional speeches, and get a high amount of money as a semi-retired celebrity. She may sometimes write a few books, even if the sales will be a fraction of Going Rogue. As Lawrence O’Donnell said, she might follow in the footsteps of Dan Quayle, one of her neighbors in Arizona. It’s not a bad life.
But I do think there’s one other possibility. It’s not something that would be good for the country, or for the Republican party, but it fits her history, and love of self-promotion. She was elected Mayor and Governor against Incumbent Republicans. So I could see her primarying the next Republican President, following in the footsteps of Pat Robertson.
She won’t win, but it will get her a lot of attention. It’s a story that the media would breathlessly report. Most Presidents will make some decisions that upset the base, so there will be an opportunity to challenge the President from the right. And there probably won’t be anyone else willing to enter the primary and damage their political career, which would mean that she’ll be one of the dominant news stories for a few months, for the same reasons Christine O’Donnell was the most covered candidate of 2010 and Herman Cain was the most covered of the 2012 Republican presidential contenders. And that will be her best shot at relevance. Then she’ll go back to what she’s doing now, with some renewed publicity.