Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Curious Case of Sarah Palin

At least no one can accuse the Republicans of being boring anymore.

In a span of just two weeks, the Grand Old Party has shot off more political fireworks than a pyromaniac on Independence Day.

One after another, the rising stars of a leaderless party have gone supernova. Two of them have probably disappeared forever into political black holes. The third will continue to ping pong around some parallel universe, hoping her unpredictable trajectory finds its target at some point.

First, Nevada Senator John Ensign, the silver-haired son of the Silver State, a classic Central Casting presidential hopeful, revealed he had an affair with a married staffer, and got his mistress' husband a couple of jobs on the public payroll, too. Oops. Nevada is supposed to be a swing state...not just a swinger's state. So long, Senator.

Then, an even bigger bombshell - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's disappearing act, followed by his bizarre, rambling confession of an Argentinean love affair. Abdicating his gubernatorial responsibilities for five days was bad enough, but admitting to multiple affairs and not loving his wife anymore has doomed this Great Republican Hope (Rush Limbaugh kept muttering "He could have been our JFK!" What, did Rush already know about Sanford's philandering?).

And now, the Curious Case of Sarah Palin. She was born wacky and grows wackier right before our eyes - and all without benefit of digital effects. No one's ever accused her of being a conventional politician. Why should she start now?

Palin's startling decision to quit being governor two-and-a-half years into her term makes no political sense. To many Alaskans, her "explanation" that she doesn't want to be just another lame duck governor, "milking it," as she said, is a selfish affront. Many, many governors serve only one term - in some states, like Virginia, they do so by statute. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine were lame ducks from their first day in office; the Virginia Constitution forbids running for re-election. Should they have just resigned, then, rather than "milk" their lame duck status for four years? Arnold Schwarzenegger has a year and a half left in his second term as Governor of California, making him as lame a duck as Palin in Alaska. Can you imagine the uproar if he quit tomorrow, abandoning ship in the middle of a budget crisis? It's not likely he'd be applauded for his leadership and integrity, or for answering a "higher calling." Most voters expect their leaders to honor their oaths of office.

I don't buy the blogosphere's theories of some sinister secret that Palin's hoping to keep hidden by leaving office. Sure, she's under investigation for all sorts of alleged ethics violations, but Palin is nothing if not a fighter. She has shown that from the moment John McCain foolishly thrust her into the national spotlight. If that was all this was about, Palin would stand firm and punch back. No, I actually believe her when she says she's tired of the nasty focus on her family. It's also very much about money; Palin probably hopes that leaving office now will lower the volume on those ethics charges and slow the mounting cost of her defense. And I think she really does want to step back and marshal her resources for some sort of national campaign, perhaps as a highly-paid inspirational speaker for now, and then as a presidential candidate in 2012.

But Palin is kidding herself if she thinks her critics will simply go away once she's no longer governor. The spotlight's red glare just gets hotter when you run for president, and her irrational decision gives her enemies even more ammunition. If she can't even complete a single term governing the nation's least populous state, how in the world will she ask America to entrust her with the presidency? Didn't she owe it to Alaska to finish the job to which she was elected? Will she ever again be able to accuse an opponent of wanting to "cut and run" - from Iraq, or anywhere else?

It's one thing to decline a second term to pursue a national campaign; it's worked for many former governors, including Jimmy Carter. It's quite another to quit halfway through that first term. In fact, it's almost without precedent. A review of the National Governors Association's historical database shows that 205 U.S. governors have resigned their seats. Almost all did so because they were elected or appointed to higher office, such as California's Earl Warren becoming Chief Justice in 1953 or Arizona's Janet Napolitano quitting to become President Obama's Homeland Security secretary. About a dozen have resigned because they were indicted or under criminal investigation. Remarkably, New Jersey's gay Gov, Jim McGreevey, was the first to quit because of an extramarital affair; all the previous governors caught in (heterosexual) dalliances rode out the storm (a ray of hope for Mark Sanford).

But in that long, rich legacy of prematurely departing governors, not even the wonderfully named Alpheus Felch of Michigan or Archibald Yell of Arkansas slunk from office in as ignominious a fashion as Sarah Palin. One must go all the way back to California's very first governor, Peter Burnett, to find a chief executive who simply quit because he couldn't take it anymore. Burnett served barely more than a year in office before resigning in 1851 under intense criticism from the state legislature. Among other things, the governor wanted all black people expelled from California, passed a stiff tax on immigrants, and advocated the extermination of California's Indian tribes. While in the Oregon legislature, he had led the successful fight for that state's exclusion law, barring blacks from Oregon and mandating the flogging every six months of any who refused to leave. California lawmakers reacted to their new governor's State of the State address with howls of fury. Burnett was ridiculed in newspapers up and down the state. So he simply packed up and quit. This is the exclusive company in which Sarah Palin finds herself 158 years later.

(Burnett still got a street named after him: Burnett Avenue in San Francisco. Somehow I doubt there will be a Palin Place in Anchorage, or even Wasilla, anytime soon).

So while soon-to-be-former Governor Palin ponders her future and plots how to build a national campaign around defensiveness and victimization, the Republican Party is reeling, casting about for a leader, and staring at an awfully thin bench. Last year's also-rans, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, look awfully good right now. Newt Gingrich? Come on down and play savior. The governors McCain passed over to pick Palin - Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels - vault to the head of the pack. Even jolly old Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as unlikely an Obama opponent as you could ever envision, looks more and more viable for 2012.

Until the next bombshell goes off, that is...


Craig said...

Governor Burnett also had a later legacy worth mentioning. After leaving the Governor's position, he later became an associate justice on the California Supreme Court and wrote the opinion on the case involving Mississippi slave Archy Lee who had been taken into the free state of California by his owner Charles Stovall.

A few months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, Burnett, a former slave owner in Missouri, didn't let his anti-black views deter too much from his opinion regarding Archy's status in the Golden State. He ruled that Archy was a servant, not a slave, and said that visitors to California could keep their servants. And that residents of slave states could bring their slaves to California as long as they were servants. He then confusingly said Stovall was a California resident, and technically couldn't have a slave but since this was the first case involving slaves in California "we are not disposed to rigidly enforce the rule for the first time." He ordered Archy returned to Stovall and the case continued to get more complicated from there.

I think Palin has more in common with Burnett than we may have at first realized.

Andrew Ellis said...

Insightful piece, Doug. It's certainly possible that her decision was a smart one from a financial and lack-of-opposition viewpoint. But great leaders have never sought to duck opposition -- they thrive on it. The trick for any would-be national leader is to widen her/his appeal beyond the base. At this point, it feels that there's nothing Gov. Palin could say that would make her supporters turn away. (Friday's announcement may be the acid test of that!) But there's also nothing she can say to win new many new backers. Most importantly, she deprived herself of the chance to deepen her thin portfolio of experience.

Even the hurried way she made the announcement looked bad. It's mavericky to steer one's own course, but successful politicians, notably Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, had smart staffs, and listened to them.

She's given her best speeches to friendly audiences, and she'll have plenty of opportunity to give lots of those. One can make a living throwing raw meat to the big cats, but you don't get promoted to zoo director by doing so.

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