Sarah Palin has a talent for reinvention. Since her first campaign in 1992, she’s gone through a wardrobe full of political personas. Study her career and you count no less than five different identities: Sarah the culture warrior, Sarah the watchdog, Sarah the reformer, Sarah the veep and now, Sarah the celebrity.
Such flexibility has allowed Palin to adapt to changing political circumstances. And in a tumultuous political moment, Palin’s pragmatism is an advantage.
In fact, we are already seeing the outlines of identity number six: Sarah the free marketer. This is the identity that will be crucial if Palin decides to run for president in 2012.
Palin’s first political incarnation, as Sarah the culture warrior, was one of her briefest. When she ran for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in 1996, Palin emphasized abortion and gun rights in order to distinguish herself from her opponent. Once in office, she asked the town librarian how a book might be removed from the shelves.
When the town librarian resisted, however, Palin moved on to other issues. She never banned a single book. She spent her mayoralty focused on growing her town. Between then and now, though her private views on abortion were always clear, she did her best to downplay the cultural stuff.
When she ran for governor, Palin didn’t advocate teaching creationism in schools, as was widely misreported during last year’s presidential campaign. As governor, she resisted holding a special legislative session dealing exclusively with abortion. She vetoed a bill that denied benefits to the same-sex partners of state government employees. As a vice presidential candidate, though never trying to shed her image as a Christian social conservative, she rarely mentioned social issues on the stump.
The culture warrior was no more. Why? Because, after concluding her second term as Wasilla’s mayor in 2002, Palin had adopted persona No. 2: Sarah the watchdog. In 2004, she resigned from the state oil and natural gas commission when she felt other members had behaved unethically.
The same year, she went after the Republican state attorney general for what she saw as self-dealing. In 2005, she announced her primary challenge against the sitting Republican governor who represented the Juneau establishment. Palin won all of these battles.
Sarah the reformer lasted from her campaign for governor in 2006 to her selection as John McCain’s vice presidential nominee in 2008. In this phase, Palin signed a major ethics reform bill. She changed the way Alaska taxed the oil companies. She pushed an agreement for a natural gas pipeline through the state legislature. Palin had sky-high approval ratings. People knew her as a bipartisan problem-solver.
Things changed when Palin became Sarah the veep. Suddenly she was the most famous Republican woman in the world. But fame has its costs. Bad press and a bad interview with Katie Couric heightened negative impressions of Palin. Her attacks on Barack Obama and William Ayers turned her into a partisan Republican who was anathema to liberals. The aura of bipartisan pragmatism that surrounded her in Alaska vanished.
When Palin returned to Alaska after election day, she discovered that she couldn’t return to her previous identity. She was still Sarah the veep. Without Democratic support, she had no chance of moving additional reforms through the Legislature. Palin’s opponents in Alaska and in the Lower 48 filed a series of frivolous ethics complaints against her. Every time she left her state, the Democrats attacked and drove up her negative ratings. In response, Palin resigned from office.
Leaving the governorship paved the way for Sarah the celebrity. In this phase, Palin is the author of a bestselling memoir. On her book tour, which will take her to places such as Grand Rapids, Mich., and Roanoke, Va., fans and well-wishers are expected to turn out in droves to see her. She has granted major interviews to Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters. And she has built a Facebook following of close to a million people. For better or worse -- OK, worse -- she’s even produced a satellite celebrity in Playgirl model and future ex-reality-TV star Levi Johnston.
As Sarah the celebrity, Palin can reintroduce herself to the American people on her own terms. In the process, she will make a lot of money. Yet celebrity isn’t qualification enough for high office. Fame draws eyeballs, but it doesn’t get you votes. If Palin wants to run for the presidency, she also needs to be sure that the public knows her principles.
That’s where Sarah the free marketer enters the picture. Palin grasps that the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress are attempting to renegotiate the American social contract. She understands that the Democrats want to increase the role that government plays in the economy and our daily lives.
Palin holds the opposite view. In her book, she talks a lot about fiscal responsibility. She recalls Ronald Reagan’s approach to economic growth. In her Facebook messages to supporters, she opposes the Democratic healthcare and climate cap-and-trade bills. She favors reducing regulation and increasing competition.
Palin is reaching out to the anti-tax-and-spend “tea party” movement. She wants to integrate it into the broader GOP. In a recent special congressional election in upstate New York, she intervened and endorsed the pro-market third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over the liberal Republican, Dede Scozzafava.
These moves have put Palin on the cutting edge of American politics. She’s comfortable as Sarah the free marketer. She’s in the middle of the raucous fight over President Obama’s sweeping domestic agenda. And to the delight of her fans and the dismay of her enemies, she’s not going anywhere.