The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lame Duck to Sitting Duck

By Resigning as Governor, Palin Made a Smart Move . . . Maybe the Last Smart Move Open to Her

Endless speculation revolves around Sarah Palin’s surprise announcement last Friday. The former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate will not seek a second term as Governor of Alaska and will resign her current term, with a year and a half remaining, at the end of the month. Is this the end of her political career? Or is it the start of a 2012 Presidential bid?

I am not sure either scenario is true. I am not sure if Palin herself has decided this yet. However, I do think it was a smart move for her . . . perhaps the last smart move open to her at this point in her national career.

Palin may not be a demonstrable policy wonk but she has shrewd political instincts. She has more raw charisma than does any other elected official in this country today. The charisma is the good news. The bad news is the raw part.

Prior to her selection by John McCain as his 2008 running mate, Palin was one of the golden young up-and-comers in Republican politics. She was a widely popular Governor in a state where she risen to power quickly and enjoyed bipartisan legislative accomplishments. Ethics investigations against her were few and likely to die quietly from disinterest. Her family’s personal life remained private and respected.

However, McCain did select her and things changed for Palin, seldom for the better. Like Obama, Palin will face 2012 or any future Presidential bid not as newcomer/outsider but a known quantity with a known record. Unlike Obama, Palin has had far less success in controlling the image of her portrayed to the public. Palin is a walking demonstration that, even in the age of Obama, it is possible to suffer from moving too far too fast.

We could debate endlessly whether Palin’s perception problems are the result of her own lack of finesse and basic competency as opposed to a hostile media’s lack of restraint and basic decency. The truth in this case, as with most matters, probably lies somewhere in-between. Regardless of their source, Palin has perception problems and eight months after the 2008 election, it is clear they remain persistent and damaging. Consider the judgment of her fellow Republicans.

After her disjointed resignation speech, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned her as “A woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.”

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, after giving her decision to resign and political career every benefit of the doubt, mournfully concluded, “The GOP nominee in 2012 will need an explanation for how we got into this [economic] mess . . . as well as an agenda for how to restore U.S. prosperity . . . Republicans will need more than a critical riff about spending and budget deficits. On the evidence so far, Mrs. Palin isn't yet up to that task.”

Palin and her family could not visit New York without ending up in a feud with late night talk show host David Letterman. A scathing article in the current issue of Vanity Fair features unnamed McCain aides questioning whether Palin possesses or can learn the basics required for the Presidency. As a final straw, on the very day of her announcement, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists named her the winner of its annual Sitting Duck Award, choosing her over ousted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich as the most ridiculed newsmaker in the United States.

However fair or unfair journalists have treated her, Palin consistently made it clear that she would meet any criticisms by combating rather than courting the press.

Even in the earliest, headiest days of her Saint Paul convention speech, she drew her battle lines. “I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment. And I’ve learned quickly these past few days that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.”

Her crusade against the media, with herself cast in the Joan of Arc role as combination sturdy warrior-maiden and vulnerable martyr, continued right through her Facebook ruminations over her resignation. “How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country. And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason, a different standard applies for the decisions I make.”

Palin went on to explain that her media woes lay at the heart of her decision to withdraw. She accused “political operatives” of using the very state ethics law she championed to bombard her with complaints. Despite surviving fifteen such accusations, Palin rued the expense to the state and herself from constantly defending against them. “I know I promised no more ‘politics as usual,’ but this isn’t what anyone had in mind for Alaska,” she lamented.

Yet even if sincere in fearing she was costing her state too much, Palin’s decision to quit probably derives at least equally from the fact that state office was costing her dearly as well. While her march through Alaskan politics as usual earned rightful praise, it has become increasingly obvious this march may have come in like a lion but is fated to go out like a lamb.

Media attention and all those ethics charges significantly diminished Palin’s once ubiquitous popularity. What is more, she now deals with an increasingly truculent Legislature. The Senate recently shot down her nominee for Attorney General. She faces a potential override of her veto against $29 million in federal stimulus funds for energy efficiency programs. Some Alaskan political observers now believe that final enactment of a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline, once held up as her signature legislative accomplishment, is more likely to pass without her support than with it.

Palin could probably survive charges of being “just another politician” – every Presidential aspirant has to deal with this complaint from time to time. She is likewise sufficiently savvy to run an anti-media campaign successfully. The two things in combination, however, are deadly to her, threatening to label her permanently as “that flaky, abrasive, and ineffective Governor from up North.”

Palin could never renounce her combative relationship with the press – it simply is not in her character and it is further doubtful the press would allow her to do it even if she were so inclined. As a result, she jettisoned the other liability associated with her and was smart to do so.

By freeing herself from the political failures and setbacks associated with day-to-day governance, Palin can focus on attacking the media (and Democrats) from within – her education is in journalism rather than political science, after all – or on its fringes as a conservative spokesperson. In either case, Palin can control her message far better by giving commentary/speeches over interviews. She need not change her message as much as hone its presentation.

In 2008, Palin proved immensely popular with the Republican base. Despite its exotic remoteness, it seems that Alaska is very much the American heartland on steroids. Unfortunately, this image is exactly what scared the bejesus out of so many outside the far right about Palin, as did the often-angry tone of her rallies. If Obama rallies appealed to what is best in each of us, Palin rallies had an unfortunate tendency to bring out some of the worst.

Palin needs to bolster her knowledge of facts and tone down her opinions. She needs to remind moderates and Independent voters that they already share some/many of her conservative, traditional values as opposed to waging a winner-take-all culture war that pits reactionary regression against socialist liberalism. Her natural conservative/libertarian views on limited government are likely to resonate more positively with moderates and Independents this time around, given aggressive government spending and deficit growth under Obama.

Palin’s recent decision resulted from getting in touch with her inner duck. She is trading being a lame duck for being a sitting duck. The latter is far from a comfortable position but at least a sitting duck is still in the game; a lame duck, by definition, is not. Sarah Palin is still very much in the game.

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