Palin's Achilles' Heel
Sarah Palin made Joe Miller’s career by endorsing his upstart campaign against GOP senator and Alaskan political powerhouse Lisa Murkowski. The former Alaskan governor’s support helped Miller, a political novice, topple Murkowski in the recent primary. It was a stunning upset that made him a national figure—and confirmed Palin’s reputation as this season’s kingmaker.
But emails leaked earlier this week between Palin’s husband, Todd, and Miller reveal that all is not well between the feisty former vice-presidential nominee and her protégé. The messages, confirmed as authentic and explained by Todd, are a reaction to an interview in which Miller failed to offer full support for the idea of Palin running for president in 2012. The curt rebuke from the Palins was a reminder of how much loyalty Palin demands from those she endorses and supports—and just how thin-skinned and prickly she can be when the favor is not wholeheartedly returned.
The liberal-leaning Alaska political blog Mudflats got hold of the two juicy emails between Todd and SarahPAC treasurer Tim Crawford, Miller, and their (Palin's and Miller’s) mutual lawyer, Thomas Van Flein.
“Hold off on any letter for Joe. Sarah put her ass on the line for Joe and yet he can’t answer a simple question’ is Sarah Palin Qualified to be President’. I DON’T KNOW IF SHE IS.
Joe, please explain how this endorsement stuff works, is it to be completely one sided.
Sarah spent all morning working on a Face book post for Joe, she won’t use it, not now.”
It ends with Palin telling Miller, “Put yourself in her shoe’s Joe for one day.”
All of this was in response to Miller’s appearance on Fox News Sunday earlier in the day the email was sent, September 19. Host Chris Wallace asked Miller whether he though Palin was qualified to be president. Miller's answer:
“I'm running a U.S. Senate race right now in the state of Alaska. That's what I'm focused on. You know, I've been asked about various candidates throughout the country during this race. That's not my role to comment on those candidacies."
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• Peter Beinart: Obama’s a Lock in 2012 Palin’s feud with Miller may just be a special case of familiarity breeding contempt (the Palins and Miller are friendly). But it could also be read as the latest in a long line of examples—from the Troopergate scandal to the former friends and staffers she eviscerated in Going Rogue—of the Palins’ sensitivity to perceived slights, no matter how minor. And it could end up proving a cautionary tale for the Mama and Papa Grizzlies around the country upon whom she’s bestowed her endorsement. Palin expects total fealty in return for her blessing.
“[T]hey can’t seem to control themselves. Presidential candidates can’t just fire off emails when they get angry.”
But can she expect that from the other candidates she has supported going forward? Palin has backed a motley assortment of political neophytes and outside-the-mainstream candidates who may not know, or even care, about the usual script for endorsees. If any of them stray from Palin’s course, or seem insufficiently grateful for her support, they may suffer the same fate—or worse.
And there’s a growing sense that the Miller problem is likely to crop up again.
“If you are always worrying about what’s in it for me, it smells like a day-old diaper and people know it, and it becomes disingenuous. Instead of a positive, it’s a negative,” said a veteran Republican strategist who did not want to be identified speaking about the Palins. “[Miller is] in it for the right reasons. He assumes she’s in it for the right reasons, he gets beat up by her husband, and it’s going to happen a lot. [Tea Party candidates] are not experienced. They get into it to be the anti-politician. No one should be surprised when someone of that ilk is surprised by someone expecting payback.”
The Palins have a history of trouble with letting things go. A former Palin aide from the 2008 campaign and current Republican consultant and strategist ran into this problem almost every morning.
“It was a recurring problem in the McCain campaign when Gov. Palin and Todd would overreact to the morning’s news and send emails demanding that the campaign react in a way that would have hurt the campaign,” said the former aide.
The former aide, who is not aligned with any of the potential 2012 candidates, said the Palins still seem to get offended easily.
“The premise of the [Joe Miller-Todd Palin] email was based on the Palins’ contemplation of running for president, but by sending it, it conveyed a lack of sophistication necessary for presidential candidates,” the former aide said. “All politicians at times lack the thick skin necessary, but they can’t seem to control themselves. Presidential candidates can’t just fire off emails when they get angry.”
A Miller aide called the entire experience “mystifying.” And on the surface it is. Palin did put her “ass on the line,” as Todd Palin said, as a Miller loss would have been seen as damaging to Palin’s influence in her home state. But the Palins' expectation of such absolute loyalty seems extreme. They are friends, she penned two Facebook posts for Miller, and without her backing the Tea Party Express may not have spent almost $600,000 on the race. But Palin didn’t hold a rally for him, didn’t put a public face to her backing, and only recorded robocalls for him in the final days before the primary.
Dave Dittman, an Alaskan pollster who has known Palin for a long time and often speaks highly of her, said this less charitable side of Palin could hurt her if she does toss her hat in the ring for 2012.
“It’s pointless and needless and thoughtless. There must be some satisfaction from doing it. I don’t personally feel good about that myself,” Dittman said. “I think it would hurt her regardless, because it eventually does. That kind of mind-set will eventually be manifest. Somehow it will come out…it’s not desirable.”
The former aide echoed Dittman, saying the episode does not help Palin raise her profile or look presidential.
“This kind of stuff is petty," said the former aide. "It would be so much easier to have called Miller and say, ‘Hey, pal, after all we’ve done for you?’ Instead of the mad guy, be the disappointed dad. ‘We’ve done so much for you, this was hurtful.’ He probably would have been apologetic. That pettiness is so small.”
All of Palin's current staff and longtime friends speak of her highly and say she is charismatic and pleasant to be around.
Asked about Palin's possible pettiness, one of her oldest friends, Adele Morgan, brushed it off: “I just don’t like people who talk about her that don’t really know her. But I think we all have a little bit of a mean streak sometimes.”
But the Palins still might have a problem of their own making. They believe they—not the Washington players—know how to construct her future, and it’s hard to argue with them and her success up to now. It’s her road to the White House that may be bumpy.
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.