The XX Factor

Sarah Palin Will Not Be Shackled

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaks to supporters at the Indianola Balloon Festival Grounds September 3, 2011.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sarah Palin’s recent on-air musings about whether she wants to be president reveal an intriguing arrogance. The takeaway from her conversation with Greta Van Susteren last night is essentially this: Palin knows she could become president, sure, but is it worth her time?

“Is a title worth it? Does a title shackle a person?” Palin wondered after Van Susteren reminded her of the ticking clock on her decision about whether to launch a presidential run. “Someone like me, who’s a maverick – you know, I do go rogue and I call it like I see it, and I don’t mind stirring it up in order to get people to think and debate aggressively, and to find solutions to the problems that our country is facing. Somebody like me – is a title and is a campaign too shackle-y?”

Later, Palin assured her questioner that this wasn’t about whether she could be elected. Asked if she could win the presidency, Palin said, “I do.”

Van Susteren, in the gentle and loving manner she uses with Palin, tip-toed around the question that surely was on the mind of viewers: since when did the presidency become a mere “title?” As president, Van Susteren pointed out, Palin might have the power to help broker peace in the Middle East, for instance. Palin responded that she’d been to to Israel, and “had dinner with the prime minister and his family. We formed a good relationship there… You don’t need a title to make a difference, truly.”

The problem for Palin is that her national political identity, and appeal, is built on the notion of her as an underdog, a brave truth-teller standing up to powerful forces of corruption and entrenched bureaucracy. It is utterly ridiculous, and facile, of course, to reduce the presidency to a title, or to suggest that a person can have as much influence as a president by jetting off to Israel for a dinner.

But it is absolutely true that Palin has more power as a never-ran than as an also-ran. To launch a presidential campaign, Palin would have to abandon certain maverick-y and rogue-ish habits. She would have to subject herself to questioning tougher than Van Susteren’s. She couldn’t play the part of a rogue for long, and would risk losing much of what her fans admire. As a never-ran, Palin can talk about what should be, rather than what she has done. She is pure potential, and need never put that potential to the test.