Sarah Palin is unstoppable

How she’s changing the face of American politics
Photograph by Sally Ryan/The New York Times/ Redux

John McCain thought he needed to spring one more surprise on America.

In August 2008, his presidential campaign against Barack Obama was listing badly. Some of this was his fault. But after eight years of George W. Bush, anyone representing the Republican party came with a lot of baggage. McCain needed to choose a candidate for vice-president who underlined his reputation as a maverick within the party and who was untainted by close ties to the previous administration. The stakes were high. As John Heilemann and Mark Halperin write in Game Change, their book about the campaign, “If McCain’s running mate selection didn’t fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, it was lights out.”

McCain’s original plan was to partner with Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice-president. McCain hoped such a choice would prove his bipartisan credentials, steal thunder from his opponents, and back-foot the press­—allowing his campaign to regain some momentum. But when word of the Lieberman plan leaked, much of the Republican party rebelled, and McCain was forced to scramble. “We need to have a transformative, electrifying moment in this campaign,” McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said. No one on the short list of alternative candidates could deliver this. Schmidt suggested a new option: Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

There wasn’t time to vet Palin properly, or to probe her thoughts on foreign and domestic policy. Picking Palin was a Hail Mary pass in the dying seconds of a championship game. But McCain met and liked her. She was confident and calm. She wasn’t afraid to burn bridges and upset people, even in the Republican party. She was an outsider, like him. Steve Schmidt told McCain choosing Palin could hurt him. But a safer candidate, he said, wouldn’t help. It would be better to go for the win and lose big than to tiptoe to a narrow defeat. “High risk, high reward,” another one of McCain’s advisers cautioned. “You shouldn’t have told me that,” McCain replied. “I’ve been a risk taker all my life.”

The gamble didn’t pay off. Sarah Palin arguably sunk whatever slim chance McCain had of winning the 2008 U.S. election. She introduced herself to America with a humdinger of a speech, but her comments and gaffes during the campaign that followed have become almost folkloric. She thought living in Alaska gave her foreign policy expertise; she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name a newspaper she read.

Now Sarah Palin is back as a political force in America. She’s a popular commentator on Fox News. Her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, has sold more than 2.2 million copies. She has hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans. Thousands more follow her on Twitter, where her postings can read like those of an overexcited teenager who has just discovered what an exclamation mark is. “YES!!! USA. 5-3 with 44 seconds to go… YES AMERICA!!! Sweeeeeet…” she wrote on Feb. 21, during an Olympic hockey match between the United States and Canada.

She’s also an inspiration to the populist Tea Party movement, whose libertarian members have the potential to either force the Republican party further to the right, or siphon off voters should it morph into a formal political party. And she’s considering running for president in 2012. Many hope she will. Not all of them are Democrats.

“She is a hero among conservatives,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “She has an authenticity that people really like. Her very ordinariness is a major political asset. There is a lot of cynicism about American politicians. People think they don’t have core values, and that they shift with the winds. What people like about her is that she is an authentic person.”

These were the same qualities that first attracted McCain’s team to Palin. But they proved to be worth little as the campaign wore on. In its closing days, more than half of likely voters had a negative opinion of her. Three in five considered her unqualified to be president—a position to which the vice-president ascends should the president die, resign, or be removed from office. Independent voters, once evenly divided on Palin, turned against her. By mid-October, more than half of likely voters said Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate made them less confident about decisions he might make as president.

Photograph by Louis Deluca/Dallas Morning News/ Corbis

None of this has damaged Palin’s brand among a broad swath of American conservatives—especially those coalescing around the Tea Party who resent the growth of government under Barack Obama’s administration. For them, damning leaks from inside the McCain camp describing her as a “diva” and a “whack job” burnished her anti-establishment lustre. And if the media portray Palin as clueless and unqualified, that just proves their liberal bias and cements her revolutionary credibility. At the Tea Party’s national convention in Nashville, Tenn., last month, where Palin was a keynote speaker, hundreds of attendees turned to the journalists at the back of the hall, pumping their fists and shouting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

“She does matter,” says Haynes Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of The Battle for America 2008, a chronicle of the campaign. “She matters in the sense that she’s the perfect example of the frustration and the ideological divisions in America. She speaks to that in a powerful way. And she has a hard core that is so passionate about her. It doesn’t matter whether she’s ignorant, or whether she knows anything, she is a factor to be reckoned with in our politics. It’s an old, old, old American phenomenon—the hatred and distrust of power, of elites, of Washington, particularly, in recent decades. And she personifies that in a way that nobody else in our politics does at the moment. She represents something about the fury, the anger, the frustration in the country.”

Palin’s ascent has thrown the Republican party’s mainstream off balance. “They’re sort of stunned by it,” says Stephen Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and was later an adviser to presidents Ford and Carter. “The old East Coast establishment, Wall Street—she doesn’t appeal to them one bit.”

She may not appeal to them, but they can’t ignore her popularity or the energy she brings to the party. “She turns on Republicans in a way that nobody else does at the moment,” says Hess. In other words, they can’t cut her loose.

But Palin, and the Tea Party movement that has embraced her, risk driving the Republican party too far from the political centre to be electable. The Tea Party is a diverse group united by opposition to big government. In this they’re hardly alone. A recent CNN poll found that 56 per cent of Americans believe the federal government has become so big as to pose a threat to individual rights and liberties. But the movement has its fringe of racists, extreme social conservatives, and conspiracy theorists.

“There are signs that responsible people in the Republican party are a little bit troubled by what’s crawling out from under the rocks that the Tea Party has turned over,” says William A. Galston, a former adviser to president Bill Clinton who is now at the Brookings Institution. “The Republicans would like to take advantage of the political energy this movement has created without endorsing it or being seen to endorse it. The question is who’s using whom at this point.”

Galston says Palin and the Tea Party have already forced a shift in Washington’s political rhetoric. He points to the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, at which leading Republicans Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, normally not partial to overheated speeches, turned it up a notch. Romney praised the Tea Party and condemned “liberal neo-monarchists” who he says want to expand government’s reach. Pawlenty suggested the party learn from Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a nine iron and smash the window of big government. We’ve had enough.”

“When you have mild-mannered people like Romney and Pawlenty turning into fire-breathers, that tells me that there’s a parade and they’re trying to get closer to the head of that parade rather than getting left behind,” says Galston. Galston sees Palin’s shadow even among her Democratic opponents, as they echo public fury against financial institution bailouts. “Even though I’m sure everyone in the administration believes they were the right thing to do, they’re modulating their rhetoric in response to the populist anger that the Tea Party represents,” he says.

Photograph by J.Scott Applewhite/ Associated Press

Palin’s influence will likely increase this year during the approach to the November mid-term elections. Mid-terms typically have a lower voter turnout than presidential elections, which means that energizing a party’s base—a task at which Palin excels—is crucial. She also has the ability to shape Republican nomination battles. She already endorsed Rick Perry as the Republican nominee for Texas governor. He won on the first ballot. “There will be plenty who will try to take advantage of her,” says Hess.

The big question is whether Palin will run for president in 2012. She’s acting like she will. As well as linking herself to the growing Tea Party movement, she recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and even delivered a public speech in the sumptuous Palomino Room at Calgary’s BMO Centre last weekend. (Her denunciation of “snake oil” climate science was greeted joyfully by an elite, wealthy audience that included federal Treasury Board President Stockwell Day and former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein.)

More than 70 per cent of respondents to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll said she’s unqualified to be president—an even higher percentage than during her campaign for vice-president in 2008. But to secure the Republican party’s nomination, Palin needs to win over a comparatively small number of voters during the primaries. In theory, these Republicans will make their choice at least in part based on who they think has the best chance of winning when it matters: against the Democratic nominee on election night. But it rarely works that way in practice.

“The primary process in the United States pulls both parties to the extreme,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. “That’s always been the case. And that may be the case in 2012 for the Republicans. When primary voters go out in the cold in Iowa, they’re really true believers. They want someone they think agrees with them. I think Palin has the advantage because she is so popular with the base.”

At the Tea Party’s national convention last month, audience members chanted: “Run, Sarah, run.”

Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute thinks Palin wants to run, and will if she thinks she has a chance of winning. For now, he says, big-money Republican donors are keeping their distance. But Barack Obama proved that a campaign can be built on many small contributions rather than a few big ones. “The political process in America is entrepreneurial,” he says. Palin may learn something from her favourite punching bag.

Haynes Johnson, the author and journalist, is also convinced Palin intends to run. He doesn’t think she’ll win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. She will shape the party’s politics, however, and, he believes, hurt it. “In the long run, she’s very much a negative. She’s so divisive and she has nothing to offer. She is, really, truly ignorant about issues. It’s breathtaking in many ways,” he says.

And yet even Johnson agrees she can’t be sidelined. She’s too popular. She brings energy and excitement to a party that doesn’t have much of either. The most the Republican party’s establishment can hope to do is control her. It won’t be easy.