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?
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 Though she still lives in Alaska, she has all but withdrawn from its public life, appearing only seldom and then usually to film her reality-television show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska.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.

Palin’s rise began in 2002, when, term-limited as mayor of Wasilla, she ran for lieutenant governor. Little known and heavily outspent, she beat expectations, losing only narrowly and showing an exceptional ability to win fervent support. Afterward, she campaigned for Frank Murkowski, the four-term Alaska senator come home to run for governor. Palin traveled the state speaking about Murkowski, and making herself better known. When he won, she was short-listed to serve the remainder of his Senate term, and even interviewed for the job. But it went to his daughter Lisa instead. (Palin acidly recounts the patronizing interview with the new governor in her memoir, Going Rogue.) Palin got the low-profile chairmanship of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a regulatory body charged with ensuring that these resources are developed in the public interest.

By the time she arrived, the notion that Alaska’s oil-and-gas policy operated in the public interest was getting hard to maintain. The industry controlled the state, and especially the Republican Party. Other than a modest adjustment to oil taxes that squeezed through in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the hammerlock held. Alaskans were coming to regard this situation with suspicion and anxiety. The problem wasn’t just that the state was starved of revenue from its most valuable resource. It was also the failure to develop another resource to which the oil companies held title: Alaska’s bountiful supply of natural gas. It’s always been understood that North Slope oil would one day run dry. Someday, perhaps as soon as 2019, there won’t be enough oil left to push through the trans-Alaska pipeline—a catastrophe, unless the state somehow replaces the revenue. For this reason, building a gas pipeline has long been a political priority, and one the oil companies have balked at.

From her spot on the oil-and-gas commission, Palin touched off a storm over these anxieties. One glaring example of the unhealthy commingling of oil interests and Republican politics was her fellow commissioner and Murkowski appointee, Randy Ruedrich, who was also chairman of the state Republican Party. Less than a year into the job, Ruedrich got crosswise with Palin for conducting party business from his office (and, it was later revealed, giving information to a company that the commission oversaw). When he ignored her admonitions to stop, she complained to Murkowski’s staff, but still nothing happened. So Palin laid out her concerns in a letter to the governor and the story leaked to the media. In the ensuing uproar, Palin became a hero and Murkowski was left no choice but to fire Ruedrich from the commission.

Palin got strong support from an unlikely quarter: Democrats. “She had the appearance of someone who was willing to go in a different direction,” Hollis French, a Democratic state senator, told me. “We subsequently learned that she’ll throw anyone under a bus, but that wasn’t apparent at the time. It looked like real moral courage.”

Even so, Palin’s actions were presumed to have ruined her prospects. Murkowski and Ruedrich still ran the party. Breaking with them made her no longer viable as an ordinary Republican or a recipient of oil-company largesse. To continue her rise, she needed to find another path. Palin alone imagined that she could. In this and other ways, she displayed all the traits that would become famous: the intense personalization of politics, the hyper-aggressive score-settling—and the dramatic public gesture, which came next.

Palin was clearly the victor (Ruedrich paid the largest civil fine in state history), but she quit the commission anyway. In Going Rogue, she says only that as a commissioner, she was subject to a gag order that Murkowski refused to lift. But quitting didn’t void the gag order. What it did was thrust her back into the spotlight and reinforce her public image. It also gave her a rationale to challenge Murkowski.

All of this turned out to be shrewd politics, because Murkowski’s governorship proceeded to fall apart, thanks to his brazen sense of entitlement. After failing to persuade the Homeland Security Department to buy him a personal jet (to help “defend, deter or defeat opposition forces”), he ignored the legislature’s objections and bought one with state funds. But it was his handling of matters vital to the state’s future that finally threw open the door for Palin.

Murkowski made up his mind to strike a deal with the major oil producers to finally build a gas pipeline from the North Slope. He cut out the legislature and insisted on negotiating through his own team of experts, out of public sight. This rankled all sorts of people because, beyond his arrogance, Murkowski had distinct views about oil and gas that many others didn’t share.

Alaska’s parties align differently from parties elsewhere—they’re further to the right and principally concerned with resource extraction. The major philosophical divide, especially on oil and gas, is between those who view the state as beholden to the oil companies for its livelihood, and will grant them almost anything to ensure that livelihood, and those who view its position as being like the owner of a public corporation for whom the oil companies’ interests are separate from and subordinate to those of its citizen-shareholders. “Oil and gas cuts a swath right through ordinary partisan politics,” Patrick Galvin, Palin’s revenue commissioner, told me.

Murkowski’s willingness to cater to the oil producers, and his secrecy, caused tensions in his administration that burst into view when he announced his deal, in October 2005. It was a breathtaking giveaway that ceded control of the pipeline to the oil companies and retained only a small stake for Alaskans; established a 30-year regime of low taxes impossible to revoke; indemnified companies against any damages from accidents; and exempted everything from open-records laws. In exchange, the state got an increase in the oil-production tax. (Palin later released a private memo in which Murkowski’s top economic adviser complains that he has “gone completely overboard” and is treating “Alaska as a banana republic in order to secure the gas line.”) The deal conceded so much that Murkowski’s natural-resources commissioner, Tom Irwin, publicly questioned its legality—and was summarily fired. Six of Irwin’s aides quit in protest, and the “Magnificent Seven” became a cause célèbre. In the end, the legislature rejected the gas-line deal. But, in a twist, it agreed to the oil tax—which had been intended as an inducement to pass the rest of the package.

Palin came out hard on the other side of the philosophical divide from Murkowski—and made it personal. She announced she would challenge him for governor. She assailed the “secret gas line deal” and the “multinational oil companies that make mind-boggling profits off resources owned by all Alaskans.” She put an “all-Alaska” pipeline at the center of her campaign. And she declared her intention to hire Tom Irwin to negotiate the deal. “She’s what I call ‘alley-cat smart,’” Tony Knowles, the former Democratic governor, told me. “It’s not about ideology. She knows how to pick her way down the political route that she feels will be the most beneficial to what she wants to do.”

Murkowski’s tax was discredited almost immediately. Just after he signed the new Petroleum Profits Tax, the FBI raided the offices of six legislators, in what became the biggest corruption scandal in state history. During the legislative session, the FBI had hidden a video camera at the Baranof Hotel, in Juneau, in a suite that belonged to Bill Allen, a major power broker and the chief executive of Veco Corporation, an oil-services firm. The tapes showed him discussing bribes with important politicians, and revealed the existence of a group of Republican legislators who called themselves the “Corrupt Bastards Club” and took bribes from Allen and others. (Several were later sent to prison.)

In the Republican primary, Palin crushed Murkowski, delivering one of the worst defeats ever suffered by an incumbent governor anywhere. She went on to have little trouble dispatching Knowles, an oil-friendly Democrat. “A lot of people on the East Coast, when they think of Sarah Palin now,” Cliff Groh, a former state tax lobbyist, told me, “some five-letter words come to mind: Scary. Crazy. Angry. Maybe some others. But the five-letter word that people in Alaska associated with her name was clean.”

Palin has gained a reputation for being erratic, undisciplined, not up to the job. But that wasn’t how she looked as governor. She began by confronting the two biggest issues in Alaska—the gas pipeline and the oil tax—and drove the policy process on both of them.

After taking office in December 2006, she kept her word and hired Tom Irwin, and other members of the Magnificent Seven. They devised a plan to attract someone other than the oil companies to build the pipeline, and they bid out the license to move ahead with it—to the deep displeasure of the oil producers, who vowed not to participate. Palin came under serious political pressure. Although she doesn’t mention it in Going Rogue, the Associated Press discovered that Vice President Dick Cheney called her at least twice that month. According to her aides, Cheney urged her to make concessions, but she didn’t.

That spring, the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act sailed to passage, helped along by criminal indictments in the Veco scandal, which were handed down just as the bill came up. Still, Palin was the deciding factor. A new pipeline plan had seemed unlikely when she took over, but she kept the legislature focused on the task.

She kept herself focused, too: though priding herself on her well-advertised social conservatism, she was prepared to set it aside when necessary. Rather than pick big fights about social issues, she declined to take up two abortion-restriction measures that she favored, and vetoed a bill banning benefits for same-sex partners of state workers.

Next came the oil tax. The corruption scandal had tainted Murkowski’s new law. The FBI tapes of Bill Allen revealed that it was central to the bribery. “It became clear,” Hollis French told me, “that filthy, filthy things had happened to influence that tax.” Most Alaskans were disgusted and open to revisiting, and possibly increasing, the tax. But Palin’s preferred mode of operating—charging righteously forth to attack her enemies—would make a new agreement harder, not easier, to reach. An explicit charge that the Petroleum Profits Tax was corrupt would imply, by extension, that the (unindicted) legislators who had passed it were corrupt, too—and she needed their votes.

Again Palin kept her worst impulses in check. And when she was drawn into the fight, she proved nimble and resourceful. Two things finally prompted her to move ahead: when tax season rolled around, the PPT yielded much less revenue than anticipated; and Democrats needled her incessantly about how much of a reformer she truly was. Then as now twitchingly alert to any slight, Palin loathed the implication.

In September, she released her proposal and, so no one missed the point, christened it Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES). Stronger than Murkowski’s PPT, it met a mostly hostile reception from her party. “I will stand in your way like the little man in Tiananmen Square to keep you from hurting the economy,” one Republican House member declared. Democrats, eager to capitalize on public anger, introduced several tougher alternatives that were particularly aggressive—that is, confiscatory—when oil prices rose. Palin focused on capturing more revenue when prices were low.

At first, her team tried to win the Republicans over. But it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. So Palin did something that would be hard to imagine from her today: she pivoted to the Democrats. “We sat down with her and said, ‘If you want to get something passed, it’ll have to be much stronger,’” Les Gara, a liberal House member, told me. “And to give her credit, she did what she needed to get a bill passed.”

In the end, Palin essentially grafted the Democrats’ proposal onto her own. What she signed into law went well beyond her original proposal: ACES imposes a higher base tax rate than its predecessor on oil profits. But the really significant part has been that the tax rate rises much sooner and more steeply as oil prices climb—the part Democrats pushed for. The tax is assessed monthly, rather than annually, to better capture price spikes, of which there have been many. ACES also makes it harder for companies to claim tax credits for cleaning up spills caused by their own negligence, as some had done under the old regime.

Four years later, Palin’s gas line hasn’t gotten going, but it’s not really her fault. Plunging natural-gas prices have made the project uneconomical. Her oil tax is a different story: though designed to capture more revenue under most scenarios, ACES has raised a lot more money than almost anyone imagined. That’s largely because of high oil prices. But it also shows that the law is working. ConocoPhillips, BP, and ExxonMobil have reported record profits—so it’s fitting that, in a sense, Alaska has, too. It’s no exaggeration to say that ACES has made the state one of the fiscally strongest in the union. Flush with cash, Alaska produced large capital budgets that blunted the effects of the recession. Moody’s just upped the state’s bond rating to AAA for the first time. While other states reel under staggering deficits, budget cuts, and protests, Alaska has built up a $12 billion surplus, most of it attributable to Palin’s tax. Galvin estimates that it has raised $8 billion more than Murkowski’s tax would have. But given the corruption that plagued the PPT, a better benchmark might be the tax it supplanted—the one put on the books after the Exxon Valdez spill. By that measure, Palin’s major achievement has probably meant the difference between a $12 billion surplus and a deficit.

What happened to Sarah Palin? How did someone who so effectively dealt with the two great issues vexing Alaska fall from grace so quickly? Anyone looking back at her record can’t help but wonder: How did a popular, reformist governor beloved by Democrats come to embody right-wing resentment?

A big part of the answer is that the qualities that brought her original successes—the relentlessness, the impulse to settle scores—weren’t nearly so admirable when deployed against less worthy foes than Murkowski and the oil companies. In Alaska, she applied those qualities to fulfilling the promises that got her elected, and in her first year was the most popular governor in the country. “It was very, very powerful stuff,” Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist for Knowles, and later for Barack Obama, told me. “She was this dowdy, but very attractive, person who drew a lot of support from progressive women. She was serious business.”

But even before she left the state, she let herself be distracted by the many grievances she harbored against a wide range of enemies. When I was in Juneau, a draft memoir by one of her former aides, Frank Bailey, was leaked to a number of political insiders, and from one of them to me. The manuscript’s memorable quality is its rendering of Palin and what it was like to work with her. Bailey was cast aside after years of loyal service and has an ax to grind. But his portrait is persuasive nonetheless, because he peppers his book with internal e-mails that he kept, from Palin and her staff.

Bailey says their “enemy number one” was a local conservative radio host to whom she would listen for hours, fuming. Ugly rumors of the sort common in politics were another fixation, as this e-mail furnished by Bailey attests:

From: Sarah

To: Scott Heyworth Cc: Todd Palin

Sent: Friday, January 06, 2006 10:19 AM

Subject: Todd’s son

Scott:

Todd just told me you had spoken with him awhile back and reported that some law enforcement friends of yours claimed some dumbass lie about Track not being Todd’s son? This really, really disgusts me and ticks me off.

I want to know right now who said it, who would ever lie about such a thing this is the type of bullshit lie about family that WILL keep me from running for Governor. I hate this kind of crap. I thought it was bad enough that my kids have been lied about recently regarding illegal activities that they had NO part in whatsoever. But a stupid claim like one of our kids isn’t fathered by Todd?

I want to know NOW what this latest b.s. is all about because I want to get to the bottom of this garbage rumor mill. People who lie like this may know me well enough to KNOW THAT I WILL ALWAYS PUT FAMILY FIRST, AND IF UGLY LIES LIKE THIS ARE BELIEVED BY ANYONE AND ADVERSELY AFFECT MY HUSBAND AND KIDS I WILL PULL OUT OF THE RACE BECAUSE IT’S NOT WORTH IT—AT ALL—TO LET MY FAMILY BE VICTIMS OF DARK, UGLY POLITICS LIKE THIS.

Sarah

Palin obsessed over her image, even more than most politicians. According to Bailey, she orchestrated a campaign to inundate newspapers with phony letters praising her. This evidently became a favored tactic. Bailey even includes a letter he says she wrote under another name accusing an opponent, John Binkley, of copying her Web-site design. (Excerpt: “This may not seem like such a big deal, but not having an original idea and taking credit for someone else’s work gives us a clue of how Johne [sic] works.”) In the idiom of the Web, Palin was a troll.

Much of this was harmless (if also pointless) and would not have undermined her political career. Politicians from Nixon to Clinton have been similarly consumed and still flourished. But Palin also committed more-serious ethical breaches. The most notorious of these involved her attempts to get her former brother-in-law, a state trooper, fired, and included Palin’s removal of the trooper’s boss when he didn’t comply with her wish. An investigation by the legislature found that, in some of her actions, she had abused her powers.

Palin seems to have been driven by a will to advance herself and by a virulent animus against anyone who tried to impede her. But this didn’t prevent her from being an uncommonly effective governor, while she lasted. On the big issues, at least, she chose her enemies well, and left the state in better shape than most people, herself included, seem to realize or want to credit her for. It’s odd that someone so preoccupied with her image hasn’t gotten this across better. And it raises the question of what she could have achieved.

“The thing that strikes me again and again is that she was so single-minded when she got here,” Gregg Erickson, a former senior state economist and co-founder of the Alaska Budget Report, an influential political newsletter, told me. “The problem with amateurs in politics is that they often lack that focus. She had it. She was terrible at running a staff, and given that, it’s amazing she was successful. But on the issues she made the focus of her administration—the oil tax and the gas line—she had good staff, listened to them, and backed them up. She was a transformative governor, no question. If it hadn’t been for her stunning ability to confuse personal interests and her role as governor, she could have gone on to be tremendously successful.”

John McCain’s advisers say he chose Palin because they believed that the race needed shaking up. But she must have appealed to him for reasons beyond her gender and vivacity. Palin was fresh from major, unexpected victories. She had challenged her own party’s corruption, at grave risk to her career. For this, she was wildly popular. Surely, that brought back McCain’s old battles against George W. Bush and the Republican establishment, and the glory they had won him.

But McCain and Palin didn’t run as mavericks. Instead, they turned hard right. Palin’s old colleagues were stunned. “The speech at the Republican convention that made her a star, that was just shocking,” French told me. “She could have said, ‘I’ll do for the nation what I did for Alaska: I’ll work with both sides and won’t care where the ideas come from.’ Her background supported that. Instead, they handed her a red-meat script she’s been reading from ever since.”

After the election, Palin returned to being governor, but she didn’t last long. She says unwarranted ethics investigations are what prompted her to quit. Most Alaskans seem to think she left to get rich. But she also had lost her political base. Republicans had never liked her, Democrats felt betrayed, and everyone believed she was now fixated on the presidency. Today, only about 33 percent of Alaskans hold a favorable view of her. She’s often referred to as “Sarah, Inc.”—just the latest powerful entity seeking to exploit Alaska.

Palin’s departure has had further consequences. Her successor and former lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, is in many respects her opposite: a pleasant man who makes so little impression that some Republicans call him “Captain Zero.” You don’t imagine him going rogue. But Alaskans seem relieved to have him in charge.

Parnell is also a former oil lobbyist for ConocoPhillips. While serving out Palin’s term, he was a dutiful caretaker of her legacy. But in December, having been elected in his own right, he decided to make some changes, and began by firing the remaining members of the Magnificent Seven. Then, in January, he announced that his top priority was a bill cutting ACES by $2 billion a year. Parnell claims that the tax discourages oil investments in Alaska, although there’s little evidence to back that up. The Resource Development Council for Alaska, a leading business lobbying group, has taken up this cause in earnest. Most legislators give Parnell even odds of succeeding. Everyone agrees that the oil industry is reasserting itself, now that Palin has moved on.

Let’s stop here and go back for a moment to the convention speech—the alchemic moment of excitement and fantasy when Sarah Palin became the star of national politics. Listening to it today, you can practically hear her shift registers, the state figure morphing into a national one, the old Palin becoming the new. She touches on the pipeline, the corruption, how she broke the oil companies’ “monopoly on power” and ended a “culture of self-dealing.” But all of that is overshadowed by the full-throated assault on Barack Obama, rooted in deep cultural resentment, that became the campaign’s ethos and remains Palin’s identity. What resonate are her charges that Obama wanted to “forfeit” the war in Iraq and that he condescended to “working people” with talk of “how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns.”

That didn’t carry her to Washington, but it did reshape the contours of American politics. Today, there aren’t many Republicans of the type Palin was in Alaska; but nearly every Republican seeking the White House strives to evoke the more grievance-driven themes of her convention speech. Regardless of whether she runs too, her influence will be more broadly and deeply felt than anyone else’s. But it’s hard to believe that her party, or her country, or even Palin herself, is better off for that.

What if history had written a different ending? What if she had tried to do for the nation what she did for Alaska? The possibility is tantalizing and not hard to imagine. The week after the Republican convention, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the whole economy suddenly seemed poised to go down with it. Palin might have been the torchbearer of reform, a role that would have come naturally. Everything about her—the aggressiveness, the gift for articulating resentments, her record and even her old allies in Alaska—would once more have been channeled against a foe worth pursuing. Palin, not Obama, might ultimately have come to represent “Change We Can Believe In.” What had he done that could possibly compare with how she had faced down special interests in Alaska?

Where true Palinism could be most productively applied is on the issues consuming Washington right now: debt and deficits. Palin’s achievement was to pull Alaska out of a dire, corrupt, enduring systemic crisis and return it to fiscal health and prosperity when many people believed that such a thing was impossible. She did this not by hewing to any ideological extreme but by setting a pragmatic course, applying a rigorous practicality to a set of problems that had seemed impervious to solution. She challenged supposedly inviolable political precepts, and embraced more-nuanced realities: Republicans sometimes must confront powerful business interests; to govern effectively, you have to cooperate with the other side; you sometimes must raise taxes to balance a budget; and doing these things can actually enhance rather than destroy your career, whatever anybody says. True reform—not pandering to the base—established Palin’s broad popularity in Alaska. This approach is sorely absent from most of what happens in Washington these days.

You’d of course have to account for her flaws, already evident back home, which would undoubtedly have materialized. But had she run as a reformer, these would have amounted to a character trait—not her defining trait—and one shared by many successful politicians. It’s amazing what the media can see fit to forgive in someone who they are convinced is a true maverick. Just look at her running mate!

But Palin isn’t the type to feel regret. And her choice of a different kind of political celebrity isn’t likely to be her biggest obstacle. Rather, she’ll have to overcome a lack of experience, long odds of winning, and a Republican establishment whose leaders are deeply hostile to the idea of her candidacy. That’s why most people in Washington believe she won’t run. But in Alaska, they’re not so sure. The Palin they knew faced many of the same obstacles, and nothing about her charmed career, from mayor to governor to vice-presidential nominee and finally to global celebrity, suggests to them that she would ever be deterred.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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