Sarah Palin's viability as a presidential candidate has been among the hottest political topics for two years now, and big GOP gains last Tuesday night alongside President Obama's falling approval ratings have only ignited further debate about her presidential prospects. But amidst all the political chatter about Palin, it's worth asking whether Ms. Palin is really interested in being president at all. We've spent a lot of time and energy focusing on her influence as a political king and queen-maker, which seems obviously related to her desire to further her own political ambitions. But what if Sarah Palin is interested only in further promoting her brand for the purposes of doing that which everyone involved in brand promotion wants to do -- make more money? What if Sarah Palin is using politics largely as a means of amassing a personal fortune? And what if her means of achieving superstardom -- the theater of politics -- is being confused with an interest in actually achieving high elected office and, indeed, politics per se?
Whether it's germane to her ambitions, I don't know. But Sarah Palin did come from a modest background, and by her own appeal and guile rose from small-town mayor to governor in relatively short order. In 2008, likely as much to her surprise as anybody's, she was selected as John McCain's running mate, vaulting her onto a national stage and exposing her to a standard of living very different from that to which she had been accustomed. Michael Gross, in his much discussed Vanity Fair profile about Palin, suggests that the controversy over her expense account during the 2008 campaign was most noteworthy for what it said about her first taste of a truly opulent lifestyle -- and how quickly she took to it.
By the time of her extraordinary decision in July 2009 to quit the governorship -- Gross says starkly that she did so to "market herself full time" -- Sarah Palin knew perfectly well that she was now a major brand, a political superstar in a hyper media-driven age. Palin had an enormous fan base, was armed with good looks and a rabble-rousing style that were sure attention-getters and had access to major platforms like Fox News to promote her product -- herself -- far and wide. The only thing standing in the way of the untold riches that were now firmly within her grasp was her boring day job. And once she quit, those riches did follow. Gross estimates that Palin made at least $13 million dollars between the time she left her position and when he wrote his article, in September of this year, including a seven million dollar advance for her first book, Going Rogue -- a second one is due out soon -- a million dollar annual contract with Fox News, an estimated three million dollars or more in speaker's fees this year alone and so on.
How does this set her up for the 2012 presidential election? All the evidence suggests that Sarah Palin has no real interest in -- or attention span for -- policy details (of course, neither did W., but his political career was ordained by family circumstance and the Brahmin class into which he was born, and he had already converted his personal connections into significant wealth before he first ran for public office. And then there was that whole Oedipal rivalry). If she quit the Alaska governorship because, she says, she didn't like all of the criticism, then however self-deluded she might be, she and the people around her must know that she will face a thousand times worse than that in the White House. However, being President and being considered a presidential front-runner are two different things. The first requires a grinding day-to-day commitment and set of skills that Palin surely has no interest in and for which she is obviously ill-equipped. The second, however, is the optimal means by which a political entrepreneur grows her brand. If, on the other hand, Sarah Palin is a potential presidential candidate -- controversial, charismatic, influential -- she will be in maximum demand. She will continue to be invited to give very well-paid speeches, offered extremely lucrative television gigs and more to do that which she does best: entertain an audience. She doesn't sing, dance, or tell jokes (at least, not good ones). What she does do is feed her adoring fans red meat that they (and the media) devour. (In truth, it makes as much sense to think of her appearances as concerts as political events.)
So what happens to that brand if she runs in 2012 and fails even to win the nomination? Surely, it diminishes. She's sullied by loss, beaten up and her influence lessened. Whoever wins the nomination becomes the party standard-bearer and, if it's Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, even if they lose in November, 2012, surely they will be seen by many as a more prominent Republican going forward than a Palin they've already bested. Of course, circumstances and ego might impel her to run -- if Obama continues to be unpopular, if the economy continues to stagnate, maybe she will run in spite of herself. The allure of power is not to be dismissed lightly, of course. But maybe Palin knows better. Perhaps sometime in mid- to late- 2011, she will announce that she has decided not to run in 2012, that she can make more of an impact on political life and the well-being of America by stumping for other candidates, by shaping debate (is there a more reliably news-making phenomenon than Palin's facebook updates?). Campaigning is exhausting and the sooner Palin starts doing it the sooner she will have to stop, or ratchet down dramatically, her ability to aggrandize her personal fortune. Furthermore, as long as she is campaigning, she'll be forced to do something other than give only the speeches she wants to give to the audiences she wants to give them to for the amount of money she wants to get for doing so. In other words, she will have to suspend, at least for a significant period of time, that to which she's become accustomed -- running her business solely on her terms and making tons of money doing it.
If Palin sits out 2012, a year in which she's unlikely to win anyway, she maintains her theoretical viability for 2016 (assuming an Obama win, still better than a 50-50 proposition). Meanwhile, having been untarnished by defeat, she can plausibly say that she's the most powerful, prominent and tantalizing candidate for 2016. That's four more years to give speeches, endorse candidates, be a media darling, all while cashing in on the continual tease that she could, someday soon, become President Sarah Palin.
Karl Rove recently criticized Palin for her forthcoming new television show on TLC, Sarah Palin's Alaska, scheduled to air on November 14 (and for which she is reportedly being paid two million dollars). He said it showed she lacked presidential "gravitas." Some noted the richness of this, considering who Rove's most famous political client is. But Rove is also missing the possibility that Sarah Palin's ultimate ambition is not the White House and that she is not spending her days preparing herself for a job it's doubtful she really wants or could manage. If, instead, what Sarah Palin wants is to be a media superstar for the sake of being a media superstar, a TLC show, among all of her other endeavors, is exactly what she should be doing. (In one of the promo videos for the show, when Palin is scrambling up an icy rock face and her guide tells her that she always wanted to be a rock climber, she retorts "rock climber or rock star?")
The gig will be up eventually -- she has to run at some point, or give up the ghost and acknowledge that, in the end, she does not have presidential ambitions. And, of course, if Palin runs in 2012 and fails to win the nomination (let alone the presidency), she'll still do very well for herself economically. But it's the putative ambition that fuels the brand and makes her the true sensation that she is. Therefore, sustaining the pretense for as long as she can that the oval office is her ultimate goal is certainly the most remunerative play she can make. And if what interests Sarah Palin, above all else, is the extraordinarily lucrative business of Sarah Palin and a 2012 run for the presidency runs the risk of killing that golden goose prematurely, then it makes good sense for Palin to hold off until 2016, buying herself four more years, perhaps, at the height of her notoriety and celebrity, to make some serious bank.
In another promo spot for her TLC show, Palin says of the wilderness: "I'd rather be out here than in some dumpy old political office." Maybe this is one time when we should take her at her word.
Just a thought.