By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009
Sarah Palin brought a tumultuous chapter of her life to a close on Sunday, voluntarily relinquishing power as governor of Alaska after a rise and fall almost unprecedented in modern politics.
She exited office in classic Palin style, with folksy picnics at which she bade farewell to her constituents, and with a running series of Twitter reports as she traversed the vast state. In one posted Saturday en route to Fairbanks, she wrote, "We remember all of AK is big/wild/good life; feel freedom here."
It may be that, after 11 difficult months in the spotlight, Palin longs to feel some of that freedom she wrote about Saturday. But does she have a second act in her repertoire?
"Palin Year One was the introduction of a persona, and the construction (and destruction) of legend around it," Tucker Eskew, a senior adviser to the Republican during her 2008 vice presidential bid, wrote in an e-mail Sunday. "I think she believes in an America of limitless possibility, so let's see. Year Two and beyond will be defined by her capacity for reinvention.
"Substantive second acts in American politics are reserved for those who stake a claim and defend it," Eskew added. "By resigning, she limits her chances for public office and expands her chances for personal good fortune. Somewhere in between public office and personal standing lies her apparent -- but elusive -- goal of influence."
Whether her ultimate goal now is to seek the presidency in 2012 or later is not known. Those who have some insight into her frame of mind believe she departs elected office without a real plan to make that happen -- or even a plan for what to do with the next six months of her life.
Palin left office about 18 months before the end of her term. In her farewell speech, she lashed out at the media, which she accused of "making things up," and warned about encroachments from big government in Washington. "Be wary of accepting government largess," she said. "It doesn't come free, and often accepting it takes away everything that is free." But she said nothing about her plans.
Her debut on the national stage in the summer of 2008 was a heady combination of adulation and baptism by fire. She gave Sen. John McCain's flagging presidential campaign a jolt of energy when he needed it, then contributed to the Republican ticket's downfall with a performance that split the McCain team into warring camps over her actions.
Her postelection experience has, if anything, been even less personally satisfying: a string of ethics complaints that have left her with personal debt; battles with the Alaska legislature; bruised feelings among some Republicans in Washington; and national poll numbers that point to a long, hard climb if she aspires to national office.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll completed last week found that 40 percent of the public have a favorable impression of her and 53 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Only 37 percent said they thought she understands complex issues.
Yet after all that, she remains a unique political personality. Palin continues to stoke passions among many conservative Republicans, and she generates fascination even among Americans who disagree with her policies and think she is not qualified to hold the highest office in the nation. Whatever comes next for her will be closely followed.
Palin has offered little insight into her plans. She has scheduled an Aug. 8 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. She has expressed an interest in campaigning for candidates who want her help in elections this year and next. She has a lucrative contract to write a book. She has the capacity to earn substantial income as a public speaker, and there is speculation that she could become a radio or television advocate and personality.
The first item on Palin's agenda may be to put her personal life in order. The harsh spotlight that hit her also fell on her family in ways she found uncomfortable and dispiriting. She has feuded publicly with Levi Johnston, the young father of her daughter Bristol's baby, as well as with David Letterman over a crude joke about one of her daughters that ultimately drew an apology from the late-night talk show host. The Palin family now has space to regroup.
But while Palin has made the transition from public official to private citizen, she is now free to operate as a national political figure without worrying about politicians back home questioning whether she is shirking her responsibilities as governor. She can travel outside of Alaska as she pleases; she can take on the issues of her choosing.
Still, almost no matter what her goal is, she faces big challenges. "It's unquestionable that she has a future in the GOP, but it's a bit more in doubt whether she has a future with the general electorate," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said Sunday. "She has a considerable rehabilitation job ahead of her to win the support of non-GOPers."
Fred Malek, a longtime Republican fundraiser who has offered Palin informal advice, said she should try to focus on big themes and ideas. "She should try not to fan the flames every time some kernel of negativity erupts," Malek said. "Let Levi Johnston have his 15 minutes of fame. Don't answer these blogs. Don't answer these tweets. Look at the bigger picture."
One Republican who worked on the McCain campaign said Palin should take seriously the book she plans to write.
"If I were her, I would let that book be an occasion for thinking carefully about anything she cares to cover -- presumably her experiences in the campaign and her broad political ideas," said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to offer candid advice. "I would focus on making it a first-rate book that is her own."
How effectively Palin manages her new life ultimately will determine what kind of future she may have politically. Up to now, she has operated with a skeletal staff. Whether by design or neglect, she has cut off almost all contact with those who served her during the presidential campaign.
Some of those advisers think she was so burned by the last weeks of the campaign that she wanted to make a clean break. Others fear that the lack of contact bespeaks a larger problem -- doubt that she can build a political staff and network worthy of a prominent national figure.
Palin's resignation has freed her to begin another phase of her life. Whether it has put additional limits on her ability to rise further will be answered in the coming months. She has an opportunity to step back, to regroup and to start again -- but not necessarily to start fresh, given all that has happened since she burst on the scene less than a year ago.