Is Sarah Palin Returning to Her Roots?

She won office in Alaska as a good government reformer. On Saturday, she returned to the themes that fueled her rise.


In Sarah Palin's big Labor Day Weekend speech to tea partiers, she came on stage to chants of "Run, Sarah, Run." A recent Fox News survey showed 71 percent of Republicans want her to stay out of the presidential race. But thousands of her fans in Iowa disagree. And once again Palin gave them no hint about whether she's earnestly mulling a bid for higher office or just leading them on.

The most noteworthy thing about the speech: for once, Palin attempted to speak as a uniter, not a divider. Addressing the crowd, she said early on that "we're not celebrating red America, or blue America. We're celebrating red, white and blue America." As telling were her criticisms. She didn't attack coastal elites or the lame-stream media or liberals (she called out "the far-left" instead). She attacked the corrupt status quo in Washington D.C., and tried to make President Obama the ultimate symbol of that corruption.

A few representative quotes:

  • "Today, one in five working-age men are out of work. One in seven Americans are on food stamps. Thirty percent of our mortgages are underwater. In parts of Michigan and California, they're suffering from unemployment numbers that are greater than during the depths of the Great Depression... President Obama, is this what you call 'winning the future'? I call it losing - losing our country and with it the American dream. President Obama, these people - these Americans - feel that 'fierce urgency of now.' But do you feel it, sir?"
  • "The President's big campaign donors got nice returns for their 'investments' in him to the tune of billions of your tax dollars in the form of 'green energy' stimulus funds. The technical term for this is 'pay-to-play.' Between bailouts for Wall Street cronies and stimulus projects for union bosses' security and "green energy" giveaways, he took care of his friends. And now they're on course to raise a billion dollars for his re-election bid so that they can do it all over again."
  • "Some GOP candidates also raised mammoth amounts of cash, and we need to ask them, too: What, if anything, do their donors expect in return for their 'investments'? We need to know this because our country can't afford more trillion-dollar "thank you" notes to campaign backers. It is an important question, and it cuts to the heart of our problem. And I speak from experience in confronting the corruption and the crony capitalism since starting out in public office 20 years ago. I've been out-spent in my campaigns two to one, three to one, five to one... But the reason is simple: It's because like you, I'm not for sale."
  • "My plan is about empowerment: empowerment of our states, empowerment of our entrepreneurs, most importantly empowerment of you - our hardworking individuals - because I have faith, I have trust, I have respect for you."

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Josh Green wrote about Palin's rise in Alaska as a populist, good-government reformer who ran against the entrenched political class and managed to implement real reforms. What happened to that woman when John McCain picked Palin as his vice-presidential candidate? America was shown a thin-skinned attack dog who pitched her message to a narrow audience of schadenfreude loving "real Americans." The strategy won her a fanatical following.

And it made her very unpopular with a lot of people.

The Iowa speech is Palin trying a different approach -- the old approach that she used in Alaska with such success. With Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry as frontrunners for the nominations of their respective parties, running against crony capitalism is actually a savvy move.

But is Palin the person to do it?

I can't help but think that it's too late for the former Alaska governor to change her image at this late date. A candidate hoping to successfully run against entrenched corruption in both parties needs a squeaky clean record, high likability, and a reservoir of support to draw on during the inevitable backlash.

Palin squandered all that long ago. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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