Sarah Palin’s Conditional Future

Speculation runs rampant, but reporters shouldn't buy in

Of late, Sarah Palin has been showing a more independent mind on the stump. She’s been at odds with the McCain campaign, publicly disagreeing with McCain’s decision to withdraw from Michigan and questioning the unofficial moratorium on rhetoric pertaining to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

And the press has had a field day with this newfound independence. She’s gone rogue! She’s out-mavericked the maverick! Enter Sarah the Diva!

Seeping into these reports is the big question of What Will Palin Do Next? Already, there’s been talk of Palin’s desirability as a talk show host (one-topic, not wide-ranging, à la Tyra Banks) or a conservative cable news star (as the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki suggested, “something similar to what Sean Hannity does”). The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza has noted that, regardless of the outcome, Palin will leave the election race with “extremely high name identification nationwide” and will therefore be a “rockstar on the Republican fundraising circuit” for years to come. And of course, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s talk of a presidential run in 2012 or 2016.

Despite the temptation to revel in/report on these possible future scenarios (including the, ahem, astute suggestion of a reality TV show with the Palin family, a cross between “The Osbornes” and “Northern Exposure”), it’s important for reporters to refrain from parlaying details from the election’s last week into a more speculative, and ultimately less responsible narrative of Palin’s future trajectory.

For instance, a New York Times article that suggests Palin’s current actions are preparations for her post-election prospects states: “there are signs that she…is making sure that she is well positioned for the future if she and Mr. McCain lose.”

What signs, exactly? The article, written by Kate Zernike and Monica Davey, points to Palin’s speech today on energy security “in a week that most candidates give over to big rallies and closing arguments,” and says her aides are calling it a move “to help her be seen as more substantive.” It also points to the fact that, on Monday, “she held a brief meeting with the Israeli ambassador, reflecting an interest that aides say she expresses in intense foreign policy tutorials,” and that she has been doing more off-the-cuff interviews with the press, “sending staff members scurrying to cut off conversations.” Finally, it notes that she has “this week tried to quarantine herself from the damage caused by news that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothing and accessories for her and her family.”

Wait, you mean Palin wouldn’t be doing these things if she had no aspirations beyond being McCain’s vice president?

While these points may segue nicely into speculative territory, they are also completely valid steps for a vice presidential candidate (especially one who has received so much flak for offering style over substance) to take at the end of an election campaign. For Palin to attempt to “show her depth” by addressing policy or to persuade voters to see her as a substantive candidate, even at such a late date, is still within the realm of the ’08 campaign—not necessarily preparation for a bigger and brighter future.

To make that leap in reasoning is to forget that Palin first and foremost has a time-sensitive goal that requires certain actions. In other words, please don’t project—campaign actions may very well just be campaign actions. While frustrated McCain advisers might label Palin’s behavior “going rogue,” reporters must report these developments in context—i.e. that Palin’s going off-message seems to signal a breach within the McCain camp—and not to extrapolate what this means for the GOP ticket in 2012.

Here’s a larger snippet from the NYT article, which seeks to build up that trajectory:

The presidential campaign has allowed Ms. Palin to develop as a candidate, and to make many useful connections as she travels the country. On the campaign, she has become close to people with extensive experience in Republican politics, including Steve Biegun and Randy Scheunemann, two foreign policy conservatives.

She has received extensive policy tutorials and been briefed on foreign policy almost daily. Aides say she has taken particular interest in Pakistan and Israel and in causes of Islamic extremism, which she has related to the economic despair that plagues parts of Alaska.

People loyal to her say Ms. Palin is well aware of the political job in front of her. One aide said she had “gotten on the offensive,” pushing to include more policy in her speeches. “It’s important for her personally, for how she’s perceived, to ensure that she gets to show her depth.”

Again, these are opportunities Palin has had, and qualities she’s had to build, in the course of her short candidacy. And it’s ultimately misleading to weave the two narratives—of 1) Palin’s increasing independence from the McCain campaign, and 2) her speculative political future—together. That’s not to say that both narratives don’t deserve discussion. But this type of theorization—she’s disagreeing with McCain… cranes neck, looks ahead… she’s ready to go it alone!—can easily snowball.

It also, unfortunately, jives with the general press meme that The Election Is (All But) Over, with polls suggesting that Palin won’t, in fact, make it to Washington. This has, perhaps more than other things, enabled accounts of the tension between McCain and Palin to simultaneously dabble in projections of the fabled Next Step for Palin.

Palin may have a bright future in politics. Or her reputation may be ineradicably damaged by this year’s vice presidential run. Or, hell, maybe she will in fact seek out television, as Mike Huckabee, to variable effect, has done. Conjecture stories will abound. But it’s melodramatic, and a bit hasty, to base these narrative projections on the Republican ticket’s beleaguered actions on the campaign trail in the last week before an election. In other words, focus.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.