How Far Will Sarah Palin Go?
Of all the torn scraps of conventional wisdom being swept up and thrown away after the election, here’s one that may be the most discredited of all: Americans don’t vote based on the vice-presidential nominee. From the moment Sarah Palin finished her incandescent speech at the Republican National Convention to the late-October New York Times/CBS News poll in which a third of respondents said the choice of Vice President would have a “great deal of influence” on their vote, it was clear that Palin was a transformative figure. In short, she single-handedly changed the race–only not in the way John McCain’s campaign had hoped.
In fact, she cost the GOP ticket more than she helped it. In that poll, 59% said they didn’t think she was qualified to be Vice President–a view shared by many mandarins of the GOP. But the enthusiasm she briefly generated made gaming Palin’s next move a popular sport. Will she join the big-money speaker’s circuit? Become, as Tina Fey joked, the “white Oprah”? Run for Senate? Run for President in 2012 as the new face of a reinvented Republican Party?
First she’s going to have to survive the next few weeks. Anonymous sources from within the McCain campaign are popping up everywhere in the media, accusing Palin of throwing tantrums, of not knowing that Africa was a continent, of being a profligate spender. There’s always a circular firing squad after a losing election, and Palin is standing right in the middle of this one. RNC lawyers are coming to Alaska to hold her to account for some of the more than $150,000 spent on clothing and luggage. The first step in plotting her future is finding a way to live down a lot of these latest headlines.
Then she’ll have to wait out the two years she still has left as Alaska governor. And they could be difficult ones. Her aggressive posture toward the state legislature’s Troopergate investigation and her emergence as a GOP leader have frayed relationships crucial to Palin’s success. Her major accomplishments in Alaska–laying the groundwork for a natural-gas pipeline, reforming oil taxes–relied on support from Democratic lawmakers, who will now be less inclined to cross the aisle for her.
Alaska will also be staring down a budget crisis: crude oil slipped below $60 a barrel just before the election, and Alaska’s budget balances only if oil is in the mid-$70 range or higher. The days of Palin’s $1,200 bonus check to every Alaskan may be over, and if her popularity at home suffers, so does her national profile.
Once her term ends, her options open up. She could try to capitalize on her fame with a cable TV show or, more likely, a lucrative speaking career. Matthew Jones, senior vice president of Leading Authorities Inc., a speakers bureau that represents top political figures like Trent Lott and Terry McAuliffe, says Palin could be a big hit if she were willing to work hard. “A paid speech is different than a campaign speech,” he says. Corporations and groups would book her initially just because of who she is, says Jones, but to have staying power, she’d need a compelling speech, one building on her life story or talking about what it means to be an American. If Palin did apply herself, the rewards would be rich: Jones says she could make $30,000 to $45,000 for an hour-long keynote speech.
If Palin wants to stay in Alaska politics, however, there’s only one good job other than governor: U.S. Senator. It seems unlikely that she would run this quickly for Ted Stevens’ seat if he wins his tight election and subsequently is forced out of the Senate. She needs time to recuperate and, frankly, to study up on the issues. But in 2010, Republican Lisa Murkowski will be up for re-election. Palin’s broad popularity in Alaska (her approval rating at home is still in the 60s despite her turbulent autumn) wouldn’t change the fact that Murkowski, whose approval rating was 63% in a March survey, would be a formidable opponent. “Palin would have a hard time winning” the GOP primary, says Gregg Erickson, editor at large for the Alaska Budget Report. Don Mitchell, a Democratic attorney and historian, calls Palin an instinctive politician whose talents rival Ronald Reagan’s, and he thinks she could beat Murkowski–but he predicts that Palin would find the Senate a poor fit for her disposition. “She’d have to come in like Hillary Clinton, put her celebrity aside and work hard at getting respected,” he says. “I can’t see her doing that.”