The Tragedy of Sarah Palin

From the moment Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech electrified the Republican convention, she was seen as an unbending, hard-charging, red-meat ideologue—to which soon was added “thin-skinned” and “vindictive.” But a look at what Palin did while in office in Alaska—the only record she has—shows a very different politician: one who worked with Democrats to tame Big Oil and solve the great problem at the heart of the state’s politics. That Sarah Palin might have set the nation on a different course. What went wrong?
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Robert Hunt

It’s hard to escape Sarah Palin. On Facebook and Twitter, cable news and reality television, she is a constant object of dispute, the target or instigator of some distressingly large proportion of the political discourse. If she runs for president—well, brace yourself! But there is one place where a kind of collective resolve has been able to push her aside, make her a less suffocating presence than almost everywhere else: Alaska.

During a week spent traveling there recently, I learned that Palin occupies a place in the minds of most Alaskans roughly like that of an ex-spouse from a stormy marriage: she’s a distant bad memory, and questions about her seem vaguely unwelcome. Visitors to Juneau, the capital and a haven for cruise-ship tourism, are hard-pressed to find signs of the state’s most famous citizen—no “Mama Grizzly” memorabilia or T-shirts bearing her spunky slogans. Although the town was buzzing with politics because the legislature was in session, talk of Palin mainly revolved around a rumored Democratic poll showing her to be less popular in Alaska right now than Barack Obama. The only tangible evidence I saw was her official portrait in the capitol and a small sign in the window of a seedy-looking gift shop advertising “Sarah Palin toilet paper.” Alaska has moved on.

So has Palin. Two years after abruptly resigning the governorship, she is a national figure, touring the country to promote her books; speaking out whenever moved to on important issues of the day; and serving, mainly through Fox News, as the guardian-enforcer of a particularly martial brand of conservatism. Though she still lives in Alaska, she has all but withdrawn from its public life, appearing only seldom and then usually to film her reality-television show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

But if she decides to run for the White House—and she’ll have to make up her mind soon—all of that will change. As much as Alaska might like to forget Sarah Palin, and she it, her record there, especially as governor, will take on new salience.

Palin entered the national consciousness more suddenly than most high-level politicians do, and she did it in the intense final stretch of a presidential campaign, which had a kiln-like effect of hardening the initial impression—depending on your point of view, of the provincial half-wit portrayed by Tina Fey or the plain-sense Mama Grizzly proudly leading her army of culture warriors. In modern politics, your “brand,” once established, is almost impossible to change. Only a handful of politicians have changed theirs (Hillary Clinton is one), and then only through tireless perseverance. Palin has shown little inclination to revise or deepen these impressions—she didn’t respond to my requests to discuss her record—and she hasn’t designated anyone else to do it for her. (Mama Grizzlies claw; they don’t contextualize.)

But over the past few months, Palin has begun fortifying her profile by visiting foreign countries and delivering speeches that extol her record as governor, especially on energy, as she did in March to an audience of international business leaders in India. Energy was supposed to be her big issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, but it was overshadowed by her missteps. She seems to be reintroducing herself.

And there’s plenty she could reintroduce—much more than the public, which long ago made up its mind about Palin, has any idea she actually achieved. For all the attention she gets, her claim to a role in public life is rarely the focus; more often, it’s dismissed outright. In any discussion of her candidacy, her critics’ first argument for why she couldn’t win, always slapped down like a winning poker hand, is that she quit her governorship. That’s indeed discreditable and harms her chances, but it glides right past the question of what she did before she quit, and how that has turned out for Alaska. And that’s a more interesting story than you might suppose—a story quite at odds with her popular perception today in Alaska and everywhere else.

As governor, Palin demonstrated many of the qualities we expect in our best leaders. She set aside private concerns for the greater good, forgoing a focus on social issues to confront the great problem plaguing Alaska, its corrupt oil-and-gas politics. She did this in a way that seems wildly out of character today—by cooperating with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on Big Business. And she succeeded to a remarkable extent in settling, at least for a time, what had seemed insoluble problems, in the process putting Alaska on a trajectory to financial well-being. Since 2008, Sarah Palin has influenced her party, and the tenor of its politics, perhaps more than any other Republican, but in a way that is almost the antithesis of what she did in Alaska. Had she stayed true to her record, she might have pointed her party in a very different direction.

Inside the Alaska capitol hangs a framed copy of the front page of the Anchorage Daily News for September 11, 1969, its headline—“Alaska’s Richest Day: $900 Million!”—stretching above a picture of purposeful-looking men in suits carrying large briefcases and about to duck into a car. The briefcases contain a fortune that is being rushed to the airport and on to a bank in San Francisco, so Alaskans will not forgo a single day’s interest. This is the proceeds of the state’s first oil-lease auction since the discovery, a year earlier, of the massive oil deposit at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, to this day the largest in North America. The headline captures the euphoria over the massive payout by the world’s leading oil companies—a windfall that transformed the state’s politics, economy, and self-image almost overnight.

Throughout most of its history as a territory and, after 1959, as a state, Alaska was a tenuous proposition, a barren outpost rich in resources yet congenitally poor because the outside interests that extracted them didn’t leave much behind. The main obstacle to statehood was convincing Congress that Alaska wouldn’t immediately go bust. It still relies heavily on aid from Washington, and that, combined with the federal government’s holding title to 60 percent of its land base (the state itself holds 28 percent more), generates a robust resentment of federal power. The colonial mind-set is reinforced by the intensity of the state’s politics, a common attribute of remote settlements like Alaska, as the historian Ken Coates has noted—think Lord of the Flies.

To suddenly strike it rich opens up all sorts of possibilities, but there can be problems too. The legislature exhausted its fortune without meeting Alaskans’ outsize expectations. And although oil brought jobs and revenue, it also ensured that a state long accustomed to economic subservience would be beholden to a powerful new interest. Oil is more important to Alaska than the movie business is to Los Angeles or the auto industry is to Michigan. Stephen Haycox, a professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, writes in Frigid Embrace, his history of the state’s political economy, “The oil industry is, for all practical purposes, Alaska’s only private economy.”

This binds the state’s fortunes not just to the price of oil but also to the fate of the three giants that dominate Alaska: BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips. Oil taxes supply almost 90 percent of the general revenue, so oil is the central arena of state politics. The industry is forever trying to coax lower taxes, lighter regulation, and greater public investment by promising jobs and riches—or, on occasion, threatening to withdraw them.

In 1978, the Democratic legislature tried to secure the state’s share of oil profits by establishing a corporate income tax over the bitter opposition of the oil companies, which sued to overturn it. They lost in every venue, including, finally, the U.S. Supreme Court. But the real battle was fought in the statehouse.

The oil industry contributed mainly to Republicans through the 1960s and ’70s, but came to realize that it needed broader alliances, and in the late ’70s began courting Democrats too. The strategy paid off. In 1981, the oil companies, through their allies in the legislature, launched a coup, ousting the speaker of the house and key committee chairmen. Then they revoked the corporate income tax. For the next 25 years, oil interests ruled the state almost uninterruptedly.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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