John McCain thought he needed to spring one more surprise on America.
In August 2008, his presidential campaign against Barack Obama was listing badly. Some of this was his fault. But after eight years of George W. Bush, anyone representing the Republican party came with a lot of baggage. McCain needed to choose a candidate for vice-president who underlined his reputation as a maverick within the party and who was untainted by close ties to the previous administration. The stakes were high. As John Heilemann and Mark Halperin write in Game Change, their book about the campaign, “If McCain’s running mate selection didn’t fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, it was lights out.”
McCain’s original plan was to partner with Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice-president. McCain hoped such a choice would prove his bipartisan credentials, steal thunder from his opponents, and back-foot the press—allowing his campaign to regain some momentum. But when word of the Lieberman plan leaked, much of the Republican party rebelled, and McCain was forced to scramble. “We need to have a transformative, electrifying moment in this campaign,” McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said. No one on the short list of alternative candidates could deliver this. Schmidt suggested a new option: Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
There wasn’t time to vet Palin properly, or to probe her thoughts on foreign and domestic policy. Picking Palin was a Hail Mary pass in the dying seconds of a championship game. But McCain met and liked her. She was confident and calm. She wasn’t afraid to burn bridges and upset people, even in the Republican party. She was an outsider, like him. Steve Schmidt told McCain choosing Palin could hurt him. But a safer candidate, he said, wouldn’t help. It would be better to go for the win and lose big than to tiptoe to a narrow defeat. “High risk, high reward,” another one of McCain’s advisers cautioned. “You shouldn’t have told me that,” McCain replied. “I’ve been a risk taker all my life.”
The gamble didn’t pay off. Sarah Palin arguably sunk whatever slim chance McCain had of winning the 2008 U.S. election. She introduced herself to America with a humdinger of a speech, but her comments and gaffes during the campaign that followed have become almost folkloric. She thought living in Alaska gave her foreign policy expertise; she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name a newspaper she read.
Now Sarah Palin is back as a political force in America. She’s a popular commentator on Fox News. Her memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, has sold more than 2.2 million copies. She has hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans. Thousands more follow her on Twitter, where her postings can read like those of an overexcited teenager who has just discovered what an exclamation mark is. “YES!!! USA. 5-3 with 44 seconds to go… YES AMERICA!!! Sweeeeeet…” she wrote on Feb. 21, during an Olympic hockey match between the United States and Canada.
She’s also an inspiration to the populist Tea Party movement, whose libertarian members have the potential to either force the Republican party further to the right, or siphon off voters should it morph into a formal political party. And she’s considering running for president in 2012. Many hope she will. Not all of them are Democrats.
“She is a hero among conservatives,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “She has an authenticity that people really like. Her very ordinariness is a major political asset. There is a lot of cynicism about American politicians. People think they don’t have core values, and that they shift with the winds. What people like about her is that she is an authentic person.”
These were the same qualities that first attracted McCain’s team to Palin. But they proved to be worth little as the campaign wore on. In its closing days, more than half of likely voters had a negative opinion of her. Three in five considered her unqualified to be president—a position to which the vice-president ascends should the president die, resign, or be removed from office. Independent voters, once evenly divided on Palin, turned against her. By mid-October, more than half of likely voters said Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate made them less confident about decisions he might make as president.