What is Sarah Palin’s next act?

October 6, 2011

Sarah Palin has always played by her own rules in politics, but with the announcement Wednesday that she will not run for president in 2012, the former Alaska governor was for once bowing to the obvious.

Palin had kept open the possibility of running until it was almost too late to start. By the time it came, Palin’s announcement was an anti-climax. The possible candidacy of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had generated far more interest and attention than musings about Palin. What a change for a politician whose every move or utterance has commanded maximum attention by the media.

In the event that she did the unexpected, her advisers had been monitoring filing deadlines and thinking about what it would take to launch a presidential campaign fewer than three months before the first caucuses and primaries. But by this week, there was limited room left for her in the race — despite the hunger and support of her passionate followers. Most Republicans looking to 2012, even those who like her, had moved on.

After three remarkable years on the national political stage, Palin opted out of this presidential cycle a diminished force. Perhaps she will be a candidate in 2016, if Republicans don’t occupy the White House.

The question now is what role she hopes to play going forward — and whether she can remain a politician capable of broadly influencing the direction of her party, the conservative movement or the national debate. On that, opinions were mixed Thursday morning.

“Over the past year Palin has garnered most of her public and media interest from the speculation around a presidential bid,” Brian Jones, a GOP strategist, wrote in an e-mail. “With the ‘will she or won’t she’ phase over, the political space she occupies will certainly diminish, but she’s still Sarah Palin, so it’s hard to imagine that people won’t pay attention to what she has to say. But her impact will wane — at least until 2015.”

Some Republicans said Palin retains the potential to be a kingmaker for some presidential candidate, at least in Iowa. “The only question is whether she rolls the dice and backs someone early enough to make a real difference,” GOP strategist Todd Harris said in an e-mail. “In 2010, her early endorsements mattered a lot. But just as often she would hold off until the winner was a foregone conclusion, and then take credit for the victory.”

Sara Fagen, a GOP strategist, said Palin could be an important asset to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, if she decided to endorse him. Given doubts about Romney among some very conservative Republicans, Palin’s backing could help assuage those concerns. “To the extent that evangelicals or farther-right elements of the party have questions about him, she could be an important validator,” she said.

Democrats were harsher in their assessments of Palin’s potential to be a force. “Her value added to the Republicans going forward is reasonably limited, and she doesn’t even have that much potential to be much of a kingmaker in the nominating process,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin wrote in an e-mail.

Garin agreed that if Romney is the Republican nominee, Palin might, if she chooses, help reassure the party’s base about him. “But it is easier to see her playing a negative role for the Republicans by drawing the spotlight to herself, as she still can do, or by taking potshots that keep the party divided,” he added.

That remains a central question about Palin the politician. She is extraordinarily gifted at attracting attention. One former Republican presidential candidate said she has the quality that all politicians would trade almost everything else to have, which is the quality of being interesting. But that turned out to be of mixed value the longer she was on the political stage.

Palin’s national political career has been nothing if not memorable, a roller coaster of stunning highs and notable lows. Through good times and bad, she has been someone who has generated both passionate support and harsh and sometimes unfair criticism.

Her ups and downs have been well documented, including the electric response to her acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention, the dismay inside John McCain’s campaign that fall, her wobbly interview with Katie Couric on CBS News and the shock of her decision to resign as governor before her term ended.

That decision is still pointed to by some leading Republicans as the move that raised questions about her seriousness as an elected official. Yet, in part because of the media’s interest but also because of her ability to connect directly with many Americans, Palin retained the ability to deliver a message, shake up the system and make people listen.

If there was a moment this year that she might wish to take back, it was the “blood libel” video she released in the wake of the shootings in Tucson. The video made Palin appear more interested in responding to her critics, some of whom had blamed her for contributing to an environment that led to the shootings, than in offering a broader and more reassuring message at a time of tragedy.

From there forward, her standing continued to slip. Though some polls showed she had the potential to be a force in the contest for the Republican nomination, they also showed that her favorable ratings were down and that more and more Republicans felt she should not become a candidate. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, two in three said they hoped she would not run.

What’s not clear is where Palin wants to use what influence she has. Will it be to prod her party in one direction or another? Will it be to challenge those seeking the GOP nomination or to support them? Will it be to get behind someone early? Will it be to try to remain a leading voice in the tea party movement? Will it be to try to help the Republican Party broadly win the 2012 election? Will she communicate mostly by Twitter, Facebook and Fox News interviews?

Palin gave a speech to a tea party audience in Iowa last month decrying “crony capitalism.” The speech was a well crafted and forceful expression of the grievances that are widespread in the country — a feeling that those in power, whether in Washington or Wall Street or elsewhere, have enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else. It was one of her best performances of the year. But those kinds of speeches have been few.

Palin has often said she believes a person can do as much to affect the national debate by not being a candidate as by running for president. She will now have the opportunity to prove that.

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Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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