What's Next For Sarah Palin?

“Only dead fish go with the flow.”

That quote from Sarah Palin’s stunning July 3 statement said it all about the soon-to-be-former Governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.  In leaving the Juneau statehouse and pursuing her next steps in politics or the private sector, Palin is doing so on her terms regardless of what the pesky national press and the political “experts” think.

Whether she will run for President (or another office), and when, is all unclear now. So, as reporters end their grousing about Palin interrupting their holiday weekend, they get down to exploring the options for the 45-year-old “hockey mom from Wasilla.”

Along with giving a boost to her close political ally and Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, Palin’s exodus from the governorship later this month gives her an opportunity to put aside her most immediate problem: debts.

One source who is close to Palin and her team (and requested anonymity) told me that “Gov. Palin has about $500,000 in legal debts from fighting these ethics charges her enemies started in Alaska.  Fifteen charges have been dismissed and three remain — and all have been frivolous and time-consuming.  Under a state ethics law [that Palin herself signed], it is very complex for a public official to set up a legal defense fund and raise money for it.  But as a private citizen, [Palin] can get a multi-million dollar advance for a book or make a few lectures for big fees and retire the debt.”  

Beyond that, the major questions about what is next for Sarah are. . .

Will we hear from her on the campaign trail next year?

Absolutely. As Palin herself told reporters, “I look forward to helping others — to fight for our state and our country, and campaign for those who believe in smaller government, free enterprise, strong national security, support for our troops and energy independence.”  

The Alaskan is surely in demand as a speaker at Republican events nationwide, and, as she indicated, is likely to fulfill more requests as a private citizen. This will entail setting up some kind of organization and operation and could lead to Palin and her husband and five children relocating to the continental U.S. One of the most oft-heard complaints from some of Palin’s biggest fans is that it is difficult and downright frustrating to book a speaking date with her Juneau office.

“We want Sarah Palin to speak to our Republican dinner here and no one else,” Lee County’s (Fla.) Gary Lee told me days before Palin’s announcement last week. “But I haven’t been able to get a commitment from her people. I’ve called several times, they say they’ll get back but we haven’t come close to finalizing this.” Lee makes no secret of his passion for a Palin presidential bid in 2012 and wants to introduce her to prospective backers in the Sunshine State.

Will She Run for President in 2012?

Hours after Palin’s announcement Friday, historian David Pietrusza, author of provocative books on the 1920 and 1960 elections, wrote me: “As you’re probably aware, Gov. Palin’s move is not without precedent. Nelson Rockefeller resigned as NYS governor in 1973, ostensibly to head a Commission on Critical Choices, in actuality to ‘go national.’”

The analogy fits — up to a point.  Rockefeller was in the third year of his fourth term as governor of New York State, was 65 years old at the time, held several impressive positions in business and the public sector before becoming governor and, while still controversial with conservative Republicans, was never questioned as to his qualifications to be President.

Palin is quitting in the third year of her first term in the only office she has held beyond being mayor of Wasilla. While her charisma and philosophy inarguably excite the Republican grassroots, her big dilemma has always been doubts that she is up to the presidency — and this extends to her party’s right.  Nationally-syndicated columnists George Will and Kathleen Parker, both of whom usually come down on the conservative side, caused a stir last year with columns critical of Palin.  Both questioned her credentials and not her philosophy.

“She should have at least stayed until 2010 and finished the job,” a former Republican state legislator told me, “People don’t respect someone who they voted into a job who suddenly walks away from it.”

“If this is about running for President, it’s about as odd a way as we’ve ever seen,” echoed John Weaver, a onetime strategist for John McCain.

When Rockefeller left the statehouse in Albany, he had think tanks, his special commission, and a crack political team at his finger tips. Ronald Reagan had similar operations when stepped down as governor of California after two terms in 1974. Palin has none of the above.  Is it really possible she can assemble this apparatus in time to run in 2012?  Or. . .

Will She Wait and Run Later?

Pat Buchanan suggested that Palin could follow the path of his old boss Richard Nixon by collecting political chits through speaking nationally on behalf of Republican office-seekers.  Working through a private group called “Congress ‘66” and with help from the young Buchanan and fellow wordsmith Ray Price, Nixon not only stumped for state and congressional candidates in 1966 but predicted precisely the gains his party would make in the House, Senate, and governors’ races.  All of this paid off in a big way when he won the Republican nomination for President in ’68.

But Nixon, beaten for President in 1960 at age 47 and governor of California two years later at age 49, wisely skipped a race in the Democratic year of ’64 and made plans for a race years in the future. So did Bill Clinton, who seriously explored a presidential run in 1988 at age 42, instead supported future running mate Al Gore, and then ran for and won the presidency in 1992 at age 46.

Like Nixon and Clinton, Sarah Palin has youth and time on her side. She could easily skip the 2012 race, focus on getting her enhancing her finances and campaigning for others, and make a national bid in 2016 or 2020.  Along the way, Palin could take out Alaska’s Democratic Sen.  Mark Begich in 2014, thus restoring her to office and burnishing her resume.  

That would appear to make the most sense. But whatever course Sarah Palin takes, what office she seeks (if any) and when, is probably known only to her and can only be guessed now. She will let everyone else know on her terms and her timetable.  As she said, “Only dead fish go with the flow.”