Northern Exposure

Sarah Palin is well positioned for a presidential bid in 2012.

She's been mocked and ridiculed by the press. Speculation is rife about whether she has a political future. She's been making speeches to try and establish her bona fides on big policy issues. Meanwhile, many of her colleagues are sniping at her.

Like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, who stepped down as governor of Alaska yesterday, needs to make her comeback. Clinton has been stepping out in recent weeks, taking a hard line toward North Korea and scolding Israel for its settlements. She made a big speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. In short, she's made it clear that she wants to be seen as someone who's got game.

So does Palin. Palin's greatest asset is the GOP itself. Next to Mitt Romney or the other squares that populate the ranks of the GOP's presidential contenders, she looks hip and hot. Stepping down as governor showed that she hasn't lost her political smarts, either. She can now capitalize on her celebrity status to barnstorm the country, which is what Ronald Reagan did for an entire decade as a pitchman for General Electric. Such tours hone a politician's debating skills and allow him to raise his profile. But Palin's profile doesn't need raising. What she needs to do is to establish some credibility when it comes to domestic and foreign-policy issues. A television or radio show would help, but aren't enough.

Palin needs to make her move in the form of a book. Perhaps she simply needs money to help pay off her legal and other bills, but it's also a great opportunity to show that she has some real substance. My advice: follow in the footsteps of Richard M. Nixon's influential book Six Crises.

Nixon was down and out when Six Crises appeared. He had been a two-term vice president for Dwight Eisenhower, but was savaged by the liberal press as vile right-winger, much as Palin has been. He ran for Governor of California against Edmund G. Brown, Sr. in 1962. But his book made it clear that he was the real thing: he covered everything from the Alger Hiss case to his tour of South America to his kitchen cabinet debate with Khruschev. Throughout, Nixon suggested that he was the man to turn to in a crisis-calm, collected and possessed of shrewd judgment.

Palin has never served in Congress or in a presidential administration, which is something of a handicap. Or is it? It may be that Palin's lack of experience is her strongest plus. She can campaign as an outsider in 2012, someone who was unafraid of even leaving political office in Alaska. She can present herself as untainted, the voice of the people. She certainly retains a blunt speaking style. In her farewell address, she instructed the media, "How about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit makin' things up?" In her book, which might be called Seven Crises, she could recount both personal stories-such as the trauma her family has endured-as well as a chapter on how she thinks America should deal with North Korea. There's plenty of fodder for a rich and thoughtful book that positions her for the next presidential race.

It's also the case that the Obama administration could flub up in coming years. As Frank Rich has observed, Palin could be well-positioned for a new run-just as Nixon made a comeback that no one expected, so could Palin. If the war in Afghanistan is going nowhere three years from now, Palin can score the administration for failing to have a plan to defeat the terrorists. If Iran gains a nuclear capability, the administration will be on the defensive as well. And a ballooning deficit, coupled with higher taxes on the middle-class and wealthy, would provide a target-rich environment for Palin. The administration has already generated considerable unease among voters with its tax and spending plans.

Ultimately, however, Palin will need to preserve her status as a maverick. Like John McCain, she has been an unpredictable force in American politics. The media knows that the only thing worse than having Palin around would be not having her as a potent force. For the GOP she presents as many dangers as she does possibilities. But for a party that has exhausted its old political formula, she offers the chance to reinvent it in her image-spunky and unpredictable. Whether the GOP, let alone the electorate, can live with that is another matter. But for now, Palin is the most powerful figure on the Right, and she's not going away.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.