Planet Palin

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Shawn Healy Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation Civics Program

Last August, Senator John McCain plucked political novice Sarah Palin, the upstart Governor of Alaska, from relative obscurity to constitute an unlikely Republican presidential ticket. Her rise was meteoric and instantly embraced by a party base that was never enamored with its less-than-conservative standard-bearer. The pick of Palin brought tremendous energy to an otherwise lackluster convention, and her vice presidential acceptance speech elevated the self-described "pitbull in lipstick" to iconic status.

However, controversy surfaced even before the convention began. Her teenage daughter Bristol was pregnant, much to the chagrin of the socially conservative wing of the party that Palin represents, but rather than flee, the base rallied around the hockey mom from the "coolest" state. An ethics probe examined Palin's firing of an Alaska state trooper, who was also her former brother-in-law, where her husband, Todd, intervened at several junctures. Even Palin's wardrobe drew disdain when it became apparent that the Republican National Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting its emergent "queen."

By all counts McCain and Palin had a successful convention, and they enjoyed a bounce in the polls that yielded a fleeting lead of nearly 10 points over Obama-Biden in early September. Soon, Lehman Brothers and the financial sector would collapse, and with it McCain-Palin's hopes of an upset bid. McCain was unfairly portrayed as a stooge of the unpopular incumbent, clueless on the economy and a captive of the neoconservatives who led us into two Middle Eastern wars. Palin didn't help matters with disastrous performances in the national media, specifically in one-on-one interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS' Katie Couric.

Palin became the object of slapstick when Saurday Night Live's Tina Fey parodied her on a weekly basis. She would later embrace this humor at her expense, as would thousands of women who wore up-do's, wire-rim glasses, and red business suits for Halloween. Palin continued to draw massive crowds and proved an impressive orator, in some cases eclipsing her running mate, but when the dust settled, the two parted ways in a devastating defeat.

Monday morning quarterbacks suggested that McCain may have prevailed if he made a parallel pick to Obama's Joe Biden. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and current Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty would've sufficed. By my count, they may have tightened the contest, but the stars were truly aligned for Obama. 2008 was a Democratic year, and when he dispatched Hillary Clinton, the race was his to lose, and of course, he ran a remarkable campaign just in case.

Palin returned home and resumed her duties as Governor. The ethics probes and Freedom of Information requests continued, as did her run-ins with the national media. Her pre-Thanksgiving pardon of a turkey turned embarrassing with the sound of slaughter in the background, and her public spat with David Letterman forced an apology from the funnyman but did little to restore her family's dignity. Then came her surprising announcement on Friday: she would resign her position before the end of the month.

The implications of her decision are far from clear the following week. If she truly has national political aspirations, why leave behind her best shot at bolstering her resume? True, running for re-election next year was probably off the table, given the challenges of traveling the lower 48 while burdened by gubernatorial duties. Firming up her national resume is next to impossible since Alaska has only a single House seat, occupied by a 19-term congressman, Don Young, who is also a Republican. Palin is also blocked in the Senate, where Republican Lisa Murkowski will likely seek her second full term next fall.

This means Palin must assume the pitfalls of "movement" candidacies, running for the nation's highest office on the basis of lofty ideals and downplaying the importance of tried-and-true experience. She certainly has her loyal fans interspersed throughout the party base, but Republicans are known to work off of a pecking order. First-time candidates rarely gain the nomination. Since Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, only Gerald Ford in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000 served as the party standard bearer in their first run for the White House. Ford was an unelected incumbent president and Bush the son of a former president.

At the same time, the Republican Party is in a state of disarray. Two of its presidential hopefuls, Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, were cast aside with awkward news of extramarital affairs. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal delivered a not-yet-ready-for-primetime response to the president's address to Congress last February. Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was sent overseas by the Democratic president on a diplomatic mission. This leaves retreads Romney and Mike Huckabee, and perhaps radioactive former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as Palin's potential opponents. Intriguing possibilities include the aforementioned outgoing Governor Pawlenty and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, but neither are household names.

Bottom line: It's too early to write Palin off, especially with the Republican Party clearly sentenced to the backwoods for at least the foreseeable future. Her rise and fall taught us to expect the unexpected. So pull up a chair and watch as the hockey mom brings her act to the continental U.S.