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Category: Politics

Sarah Palin Is on the Road Again, But to Where?

| November 16, 2009


Sarah Palin is back in the news, with an appearance on Oprah and a tour to promote her autobiography that can’t fail to excite her supporters. But can she move beyond her base to become a viable candidate again for national office?

When Sarah Palin surprised the press and public by stepping down as Alaska’s governor, she said, “I’m not a quitter, I’m a fighter.” Well, she is back—not as a political candidate—but as a promoter of her new, already best-selling tell-all book, Going Rogue: An American Life. When her brightly colored tour bus pulls into your hometown, you may think it is Groundhog Day again, and the 2008 political campaign is in full swing.

The 2008 presidential election made us think a lot about how women are faring in American politics. To simply wish for a woman president—any woman—is ridiculous. Still, Sarah Palin does have one thing in common with Hillary Clinton. They both suffered the wrath of unfair media treatment so common to women in the political arena. Karrin Anderson, a Colorado State communication professor, describes it as the pornification of women in American politics in her essay in Communications Currents.  Anderson notes: “Unfortunately, despite the gains women have made in the last century, analysis of communication in political media and popular culture during the 2008 presidential campaign shows a troubling trend. As in the 19th and 20th centuries, the political culture of the 21st century is rife with sexist imagery.” While Sarah Palin is still complaining about it—and cashing in on it—Hillary Clinton is leading on the world stage.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Sarah Palin’s book tour plans to serve as a warm-up for a big role in next year’s midterm elections and if supporters get their wish, the next presidential race.” But what potential supporters should realize is that the trajectory of Sarah Palin’s career is not that of a great political leader in the making. In my study of women and the American presidency, I identified two factors that significantly increase the chance of anyone becoming president: perseverance and being governor. By stepping down mid-stream and losing the title of governor, regardless of significant media attention from a book tour, Palin is unlikely to be considered presidential timber in the near or distant future. And the type of book she wrote—one that lays blame on everyone from Katie Couric to bloggers—is further destructive to her ethos as a political leader. For Palin it seems that the “buck stops” at her increased fame and fortune.

By contrast, the stamina and perseverance of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail for the presidency is one of the reasons her almost winning the Democratic nomination for president is so important. David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, is described in The New Yorker as infuriated “to see Clinton slogging it out for months after the pundits had counted to ten.” In her Democratic National Convention speech, she drew from the strength of such foremothers as Harriet Tubman, quoting: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” And Hillary Clinton has kept going by re-shaping the role of secretary of state. I'm sure Harriet Tubman did not mean: "get on a bawdy self-promotion bus tour and sell, sell, sell!"

As we turn the page from the 2008 election ever forward, we should keep our eyes on governorships to consider viable women presidential candidates. The governors who complete their terms and lead with innovation and insight, male or female, are in the pool of those most likely to become president. This is especially true for women, because we need stronger leadership credentials to break through the glass ceiling. That’s why Barbara Lee of the Barbara Lee Foundation published a guide “Keys to the Governor’s Office” to help women who are running for governor. Brenda DeVore Marshall and Molly A. Mayhead, editors of Navigating the Boundaries: The Rhetoric of Women Governors note: “The increasing importance of the state governor throughout the history of the country, coupled with women steadily expanding the role that office, demonstrates that the face of the governorship has changed.”

In all, 16 state governors have risen to win the United States presidency, and currently six women serve as state governors. In this partisan climate, the governorship allows political candidates to stay somewhat above the daily rough and tumble of partisan politics that so often makes senators less attractive presidential contenders. A governor stands alone in her state to lead and serve as a spokesperson for all the state’s people, much like a president serves the nation. As governor, a politician showcases more idealistic values rather than engaging in the pragmatism of enacting legislative complexities.

By quitting, Sarah Palin squandered the most viable platform she had to the presidency:  the governorship of Alaska. Getting on a flashy bus, touring cities, giving media interviews and making speeches don't make you a political leader. Leading does.