What Sarah Palin Saw Clearly

Her 2008 vice-presidential run—built on divisive, personality-driven populism—was a harbinger of things to come.

Sarah Palin
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Ten years ago, we first met Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, for a series of TV interviews. At the time, Palin might not have been able to name a single newspaper or magazine—but she did read where the electorate, at least a significant part of it, was moving. Her candidacy revealed that long-standing political norms were being pushed aside by a new style of divisive, personality-driven populism. A decade later, it’s clear that Palin was more than a historical footnote; she was the harbinger of things to come.

In 2008, John McCain wanted to change politics with his selection of a running mate; his idea was to pick Joe Lieberman, an independent senator who caucused with the Democrats. According to aides, McCain wanted to confront extreme partisanship and forge a kind of national-unity government built on comity and compromise, pledging to serve a single term. But after Senator Lindsey Graham floated the idea, the hard-core party faithful rejected the notion out of hand. Faced with the choice of picking a fight with the most loyal (and ideological) Republican voters, or picking a more doctrinaire candidate, McCain decided to appease the base.

Historically, vice-presidential nominees have been selected for a variety of reasons, a combination of campaign politics and compatible skill sets. Despite the slogan “Country first,” the McCain team focused exclusively on politics—desperate for an edge that would help the GOP win a rare third term, even in a weak economy. (A month later, the economy would go from problematic to cataclysmic.)

We recently spoke with top McCain and Obama aides for our podcast marking 10 years since the Palin interviews. According to Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, Palin’s vetting did not include asking any questions like “Do you understand the U.S. tax system?” or “Do you know where Iraq is?” Schmidt said they simply assumed that a governor would be knowledgeable about public policy.

Fundamentally, it was the priority the campaign placed on optics—Palin’s outsider image and undeniable charisma—that led to the selection of a politician who believed that Saddam Hussein attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and that the British government was run by Queen Elizabeth.

Ten years ago, it was also assumed—not just by journalists but by the people running presidential campaigns—that a candidate for national office would be tested by tough interviews with serious journalists. And so, in addition to a session with Sean Hannity at Fox News, the Palin team arranged interviews with ABC and CBS. In putting together the questions, our goals were simple: be fair, follow up, and get Palin to explain her positions and philosophy to the American people.

After the governor stumbled, with widely mocked answers about Russia and the economy, it did not occur to the McCain team to cancel the second scheduled interview. They also chose not to shoot the messenger by going after the “liberal media.” Nicolle Wallace, another senior adviser, told us the campaign believed that “there was nothing Katie did that could fairly be attacked.” Sitting next to Palin, McCain himself told us he thought it was a good interview. All of that feels quaint today, when nearly one in three Americans believes the press is the “enemy of the people,” when the definition of “fake news” is news the president doesn’t like, and when many partisans restrict themselves to watching, or appearing on, shows that provide affirmation and not information.

As the campaign went on, Palin bridled at the tone McCain set. When a McCain supporter said “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No ma’am, no ma’am … He's [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” When one man said he was scared of Obama, McCain replied that “[Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” The crowd booed. McCain also said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him and I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are.”

Palin took the opposite tack: She stoked her supporters’ fears—and won their cheers. At her rallies, Palin said, “I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.” At one, a man shouted “Treason” and Palin said nothing. At another, Palin’s anti-Obama diatribe led a man to yell out, “Kill him!” Palin did not push back against her often-angry crowds. In the strongest echo of today’s Trump rallies, she instead used her speeches to go after the free press (or the “lamestream media”), reserving particular scorn for elite publications. Palin’s supporters then started verbally attacking her traveling press corps, including hurling a racial epithet at an African American journalist. Again, Palin not only refused to lower the temperature, she seemed to bask in that kind of heat.

This is not to say that McCain or other “old school” politicians were unwilling to go negative or attack their political opponents. They would and did. It’s that there were lines they wouldn’t cross—especially when it came to respecting the legitimacy of their opponents and of journalists. These are lines that politicians like Palin and President Trump won’t even acknowledge. And in a big, diverse democracy, where power is transferred peacefully, where compromise and consensus are required to get things done, those boundaries matter.

Another corrosive trend: Palin’s contempt for experts and elites. The then-governor didn’t study policy journals or even follow national news. She resisted when McCain aides tried to get her to focus on preparing for our interviews. But she thrilled her supporters with attacks on coastal liberals and support for “normal Joe Six Pack Americans.” Among some conservatives, a disdain for the liberal intelligentsia morphed into a disdain for the highly educated or for facts that contradicted their worldview. That has led to the current environment, where no matter what evidence the experts have brought to bear—against Brexit, against Trump’s trade and tax policies—it doesn’t matter to many voters. These elites, and the arguments they make, are dismissed out of hand.

One last lesson from covering Palin: Women who run for national office are treated worse than men. This is unsurprising but worth examining. Palin was obsessed with her image and coverage—even forcing the cash-strapped McCain team to spend money on a poll in Alaska, a GOP stronghold, because she was concerned about her popularity back home. But Palin wasn’t wrong to worry that she was being held to a different standard. One academic study found that Palin and the only other female candidate for vice president, Geraldine Ferraro, were treated to more negative coverage than male vice-presidential candidates, more questions about their ability to balance politics and family life, and a preoccupation with their appearance. New-media coverage of Palin (in internet publications) was even more negative—and more sexist—than TV, radio, and newspaper coverage.

Palin may have stumbled over some issues, but she understood that image and personality now mattered more than policy mastery. She was all about the base before that strategy became conventional wisdom. She saw the political power in attacking elites. She was right that women in positions of prominence—especially women seeking national office—are treated differently. And unfortunately she knew that delegitimizing the opposing party, and the mainstream media, are effective campaign tactics. It turns out, Sarah Palin could see a lot more than Russia from her house.