Think you know Sarah Palin? The former Alaska governor has been in the spotlight ever since John McCain named her as his running mate on Aug. 29, 2008. Yet, while practically everybody has an opinion about Palin, not all of those opinions are grounded in reality. Many of them are based more on a “Saturday Night Live” caricature than on the living, breathing, 46-year-old mother of five. The real Sarah Palin is a complex woman who has risen in no time from obscurity to the stratosphere of American politics, fusing celebrity and populism in novel ways. Now that she’s laying the foundation for a possible presidential run in 2012, it’s worth taking a moment to separate the facts about Palin from the fables.
1. Palin cost McCain the 2008 election.
She didn’t. CNN’s 2008 national exit poll, for example, asked voters whether Palin was a factor when they stepped into the voting booth. Those who said yes broke for McCain 56 percent to 43 percent.
Before Palin’s selection, remember, McCain suffered from an enthusiasm gap. Republicans were reluctant to vote for the senator from Arizona because of his reputation as a maverick who’d countered his party on taxes, immigration, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and “cap and trade” climate legislation. But Palin’s conservative record in Alaska and antiabortion advocacy changed the Republican mood. With her by his side, McCain’s fundraising and support from conservatives improved. It wasn’t enough to beat Barack Obama — but McCain probably would have lost the presidency by a greater margin if he had, say, selected independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, further alienating the GOP base.
Yes, it’s possible that Palin’s conservatism and uneven performance on the campaign trail shifted some voters to Obama’s column. But even if Obama picked up some anti-Palin votes, he surely didn’t need them: The economy was in recession, Wall Street was in meltdown, and the incumbent Republican president was incredibly unpopular. In the end, it’s impossible to know how McCain would have performed if he hadn’t selected Palin — politics does not allow for control experiments.
2. Resigning as governor was rash.
No one expected Palin’s resignation on July 3, 2009, just 2 1/2 years into her term. Her hastily composed and clumsily delivered farewell address left many observers confused about her motives. Some of her critics were only too eager to fill in the gaps with conjecture and hearsay (She’s being investigated by the FBI! Sarah and Todd must be headed for divorce!). If there was one thing everybody knew for sure, it was that Palin’s career in politics was over.
But none of the rumored scandals ever broke. The Palins remain married. And as for Sarah Palin’s career, it’s taken off. She plays a far greater role in American public life than she did before she left office.
When Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, she confronted three problems. The political coalition on which she had based her governorship — a combination of Democrats and renegade “Palinista” Republicans — had collapsed. Her critics were using Alaska’s tough ethics laws to launch investigations into her behavior, sapping her finances and her energy. Finally, every time she traveled to the Lower 48, Alaskans criticized her for putting her political interests above the state’s.
Palin’s solution was to resign. Her agenda stood a better chance of passing if then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who shared Palin’s goals, succeeded her as governor. As a private citizen, meanwhile, Palin could make enough money to pay her legal bills. And she would no longer be accused of neglecting her official duties.
Some might say that Palin’s resignation was shortsighted and showed that she was not ready for the demands of executive office. But if Palin had remained governor, she would have been denied opportunities to rally the tea party and fight in the battle over the Obama agenda. She would have been stuck on a regional stage. Instead, she’s back on the national one.
3. Palin and the tea party are destroying the GOP.
You’ve heard the spiel: The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war between moderate incumbents and far-right challengers backed by Palin and the tea party. Driving Charlie Crist from the GOP and defeating establishment figures such as Robert Bennett, Lisa Murkowski and Mike Castle spells electoral doom for the party. The only chance Republicans have for long-term success is to move to the center in a bid to win over millennials and Latinos.
But demographics aren’t destiny, and no one knows what the future holds. The reality, right now, is that Palin and the tea party are saving the GOP by dragging it back to its roots and mobilizing conservative voters.
Remember, by the time Palin arrived on the national scene, the Republican Party was depleted, exhausted and held in disrepute. An unpopular war in Iraq, an economy in recession and GOP corruption had driven away independents. Meanwhile, massive government spending and a liberal immigration policy had dispirited conservatives.
This is where Palin came in. In the wake of Obama’s historic victory, she and countless other grass-roots activists could have abandoned the GOP and turned the tea party into a conservative third party. They didn’t. They decided instead to refashion the Republican Party from the ground up, pressuring it to live up to its limited-government ideals. Now, two years after Obama’s win, Republicans are poised to reap major gains in the midterm elections. Palin and the tea party haven’t hurt the GOP one bit.
4. Palin is extreme.
On many of the most important issues of the day, Palin holds positions that are squarely in the center-right of American political discourse. And many of those positions, not incidentally, are held by a large segment or even a majority of the public. For instance, neither the public nor Palin believes the stimulus worked. And while most Americans may not share Palin’s views regarding “death panels,” many join her in opposing Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Over the past two years, Pew and Gallup surveys have tracked the public as it has moved to the right — not on just one or two issues but on a whole constellation of them. Even on the controversial topics of abortion, guns and same-sex marriage, Palin is not as far away from the center as some suppose. A May 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that a majority of Americans identified as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.” In October 2009, Gallup measured record-low support for gun control. The public is divided on same-sex marriage, with about half the country joining Palin’s (and Obama’s) opposition.
5. Palin is unelectable.
Without question, a Palin 2012 campaign would be an uphill battle. Palin is unpopular — massively so among Democrats, decisively so among independents. Even many Republicans don’t believe she’s ready to be president.
But opinions can change. Look at the political resuscitations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. If Palin works hard and runs an impressive campaign, wavering Republicans and skeptical independents may give her a second look.
To earn that second look, she may need to find a big idea. It’s hard to become president without one. Reagan had supply-side economics and the end of detente with the Soviets. Bill Clinton had the third way. George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism and the freedom agenda. Obama had national unity and hope and change.
At the moment, however, Palin still expresses her agenda mainly in negative terms, focusing on her opposition to Obama and the Washington establishment. She hasn’t defined her “common-sense conservatism” in positive language. And she hasn’t found a unifying, exhilarating theme.
Then again, she just might get along without one. After all, a presidential contest is a choice. The public might not love Palin. But by 2012, Americans might absolutely despise Obama. Two more years of a bad economy and an unpopular Afghan war, and anything is possible. Yes, there’s a ceiling to Palin’s support. But in 2012, there also will be a ceiling to Obama’s.
Whose will be higher?
Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of the Weekly Standard and the author of “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.”