Why Sarah Palin is still with us
In politics, power can be exercised in a number of ways — from the elected officials who make laws, to the lobbyists who help craft laws, to an impassioned electorate. And in rare instances, power stems from those who keep all of us guessing as to their true intentions. By not committing to a single path, they claim influence along each path.
Sarah Palin has not run for elected office since 2008 when she and GOP presidential nominee John McCain (R-Ariz.) lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. A longtime elected official dating back to the early 1990s and her Wasilla, Alaska, city council days, Palin’s latest stretch as a private citizen (nearly 12 years) is longer than she’s served in public office.
Yet in some Republican circles, she remains highly relevant. Why? Because she hasn’t committed to a single path going forward, and at 58 years old, she remains fairly youthful by American political standards.
Since 2008, Palin has remained active as a queen-/king-maker of sorts, lending endorsements to conservative candidates. She’s written two books, served as a political analyst, starred in TV shows, and even kicked off a now-defunct television channel. Removing politics and ideology from the equation, Palin’s done a remarkable job remaining relevant despite not running for office again.
But it’s important to understand why she’s remained relevant: If Americans believed Palin were finished with electoral politics, then her star power would dim.
Because failed vice-presidential candidates rarely ride off into the sunset.
Prior to Palin, John Edwards lost in 2004, and went on to run for president in 2008. Joe Lieberman lost in 2000, then ran for the highest office in 2004. 1996 nominee Jack Kemp laid the groundwork for a 2000 presidential run before endorsing eventual winner George W. Bush. And after falling short for re-election in 1992, Dan Quayle ran for the 2000 presidential nomination.
Compared to most of her post-World War II predecessors, Palin has walked a tightrope that combines ambition with coyness and, perhaps, a little bit of fear. She stoked excitement about a possible 2012 presidential run, stating that if God “opens the door,” she’ll “plough through that door.”
Last year, she suggested she might challenge Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the Republican primary, offering that “If God wants me to do it, I will.”
The recent passing of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) opened another potential door for Palin, and she seized on it — but carefully. She stated, “If I were asked to serve in the House and take his place, I would be humbled and honored and I would in a heartbeat.”
There’s a pattern here. “Plough through the door,” “I will,” and “In a heartbeat” are all words of a fighter. They speak to an audience that adores her take-no-prisoners, plain-speaking style. They also speak to an underlying desperation to remain relevant. Because she doesn’t want to work for it. Essentially, she wants the power of an elected office without the risk of losing. Because if you actively seek power and don’t obtain it, you are weakened.
This is a key reason why Palin has not run since 2008, and it’s a window into why she likely will never run again.
By dangling the possibility of running, she’s exercising power. As a result, conservative media such as Newsmax and Fox News give her platforms to reshape her narrative, such as shooting down Sean Hannity’s suggestion that she’s no longer in the political arena: “I never went anywhere,” she fired back.
And it’s true: She hasn’t gone anywhere. And she’s not going anywhere — so long as offering the possibility she might be going somewhere keeps her relevant.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.
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