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?

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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