It's been three years almost to the day since Sarah Palin first appeared on our television screens, and it's been three years minus a few months since we've all been speculating whether she'll run for president in 2012. Lately, it's become pretty clear that she probably wouldn't win the nomination if she did run, let alone the general election. Her refusal to confirm her candidacy has elicited frustration, scorn, and even viciousness from the media, but her method is hardly innovative. Threatening to run for president is a tried-and-true strategy to get people to listen to you, and Sarah Palin is employing it brilliantly.
Sure, a lot of people think Palin is a megalomaniac. She's been accused of opportunism, of having too little substance and too much folksy rhetoric. Many journalists have theorized that she's leaving her decision about the campaign to the last minute so that she can squeeze out as much money from her speaking gigs as possible. (Conversely, there are those who think she has to run for president, or else the jig—and the cash flow—is up.) I too see the disingenuous gleam in her eye, and it makes her success all the more irritating.
But let's assume for a second that she really does believe what she says. She really does want small government and fewer taxes, and she really does hate all the elitist career politicians in Washington. She may be power-hungry and narcissistic, but so many beloved politicians and political activists, from Malcolm X to Bill Clinton to Rush Limbaugh, were and are just as self-important. She wants to get a message across, and toying with the idea of a presidential run has proven an effective tactic for gripping the public's attention.
Sarah Palin is a particularly glamorous, anti-media establishment version of a politician-activist hybrid: the almost-candidate. These people sometimes hold office, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Once in a while, they actually follow through on their perennial promise to run for president, like Ralph Nader (of course, he's never vied for a nomination of a major party). In the case of Donald Trump, the threats seem to be curiously timed with a show's premiere or a new memoir. No matter what, though, almost-candidates know exactly what they're doing: using the emotional pull of the still-potent "president" concept, without having to deal with the compromise and bureaucracy of being a lawmaker.
It makes total sense, actually. The symbolism of running for president comes with an air of historical importance. A presidential campaign embodies an entire nation's hopes and dreams. It solidifies the possibility of iconic status; a president is the definition of a leader. Keeping the suspense alive gives an almost-candidate like Sarah Palin a tactical leg up, too. Every speech she makes, every event she attends suddenly becomes worthy of an entourage of reporters. Yet the reality of being president isn't appealing to a true activist. She'd rather be on the road meeting people and giving speeches. She'd rather be applying pressure than be under it.
Of course, there's a thin line between influencing the conversation with ideas and becoming the conversation as a result of a manipulative, catch-me-if-you-can media strategy. And a given candidate can pull this trick in only so many election cycles; by the third time around, even Donald Trump didn't seem all that convinced that he'd run.
We'll never know how genuine Palin's advocacy really is. Still, every time an almost-candidate invokes a presidential campaign, we're all picturing, if only for a second, what that person would look like in the Oval Office. And that's a powerful image indeed.