When Sarah Palin stormed onto the scene in 2008, there was no denying the power of her brand. Whether you loved her or hated her, whether you thought she was the future or rolled your eyes at her big-game hunting and comments like being able to see Russia from Alaska (or “see Russia from my house,” said Tina Fey when she was impersonating Palin on “Saturday Night Live”), you knew what she stood for, and you had some begrudging respect for her positioning as a hockey mom who didn’t believe in wasting a civic nickel. (You gotta remember the stuff on pigs and pork?)
The previously unknown Alaska governor quickly became a new breed of working mother. A strong conservative woman. An unlikely but believable candidate to shatter the glass ceiling. A rallying force for the Tea Party and other right-wingers. A maverick, a rebel, a politician unafraid of speaking her mind—and who cared if it was uninformed or inappropriate?
With John McCain (who is so not a kook that I can’t understand how his brand ever got commingled with Her Kookiness, because brands are judged by the company they keep), she tried her best to give Obama a run for his money and earn that erstwhile place a heartbeat away from the famous 3 a.m. phone call. When that didn’t work out, she traded politics for much-more-lucrative punditry and remained a force that shaped the American conversation, for better or worse.
Last week she launched the online Sarah Palin Channel. “Join us as we discuss the great issues of the day and work toward solutions,” it says on the site, which includes posts ranging from her mother’s Word of the Day to a video called “The Truth About the War in Israel.” Even with this new development, Palin is in danger of becoming irrelevant, a punch line, a blooper in the historical record.
That’s the danger of choosing kook as part of your personal brand. It gets attention, but it has an inherently limited shelf life. Eventually the novelty, controversy and “maverickness” of it wear off, then you have to amp it up and do something even kookier in order to remain in the public consciousness.
She has been especially tone-deaf on an important issue. As reported by New York’s Daily Intelligencer blog, she told “Extra”that Hillary Clinton’s impending grandmother-hood will “broaden her worldview” and that “of all places, it should be in the womb that these babies are protected. So maybe even on a social issue like that, she’ll open her eyes.”
(Clinton’s becoming a grandmother has plenty of real implications for her own personal brand. I’m curious to see how that plays out, whether the grandmother brand will increase her likability and relatability, or play into the hands of the opponents who have cast her as infirm and growing longer in her teeth, to paraphrase a bad description.)
Earlier this year, the former Alaska governor “out-Palined herself,” in the words of numerous headlines, when she gave a speech at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting and said, “[I]f I were in charge, [U.S. enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
But being flabbergasted by Sarah Palin isn’t about red states or blue states, or right or left. It’s about having all your knives in the drawer, and if Palin ever seemed to, she certainly doesn’t seem so now. What’s not clear is whether she’s doing this in a desperate plea for attention or to peddle her new online channel. (It doesn’t appear that it’s for another run at a high political office; in the same “Extra” interview, she fairly brushed aside talk of running for president in 2016.)
Unless she completes a major branding makeover (and perhaps several years of intense education), she doesn’t stand a chance.
Thirty years ago, Geraldine Ferraro cracked the glass ceiling with dignity and grace, and she remains positively regarded by many Americans, whether or not they shared her politics. Her respectable brand endured, and she didn’t become a historical punch line. For 20 years, Hillary Clinton has been chipping away at it, making more cracks even as she endured scandals and cruel judgments.
But the latest woman who was poised to reinvent American politics is now just coming off as cracked. Forget the ceiling. She needs a quick brand reinvention just to pick herself off the floor.