Big Hollywood blogger Kurt Schlichter is, I fear, a bit too fond of Sarah Palin for his own good. He wrote yesterday that her abrupt and as-yet unexplained resignation from the Governorship of Alaska may have been prompted by media criticism of her and vicious attacks on her family, but this has made her “more powerful than [her enemies] can possibly imagine.” A cute analogy, especially with the clip from Star Wars. But Schlichter’s Obi-Wan Kenobi analogy is simply not right. I know that Sarah Palin fans want to believe what Schlichter is writing turns out to be true, but wanting it doesn’t make it so.
Soon-to-be-former-Governor Palin is not stronger now than she was before and certainly will not become stronger than her liberal critics can possibly imagine in the future. She is weaker now, not stronger, than she was even a week ago. She will only become weaker once she becomes “Former Governor Palin.” In order to gain power, you need to show that you can use the power you already have effectively. No less a staunch partisan Republican political strategist than Karl Rove agreed with former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee that her resignation is a “risky strategy” that has left him “perplexed.”
First, if she’s going to try and build a national campaign starting now, this is a very unorthodox move and consequently, she’s shooting herself in both feet. Three recent examples demonstrate that bailing out of government is a bad way to prepare for a Presidential campaign:
A) Hillary Rodham Clinton. Eight years’ worth of machinations, resume-building, maintenance and upgrades to an already-impressive political machine, and what’s more, possibly the most impressive set of political alliances and presumptions of inevitability did not result in President Hillary Clinton. Senator Clinton was outdone by then-Senator Obama virtue of the fact that fundamentally, she did not have enough personal executive experience running an enterprise like a Presidential campaign. At best for Palin, she has not yet demonstrated the kind of executive skill necessary to do that. Palin fans will likely bristle at this characterization of Governor Palin, but see my explanation below examples B) and C).
Nor has she been able to convince me that she is capable of personally overseeing the kind of political machine-building that Clinton did during the Bush Administration. Maybe she wouldn’t need to if she piggybacks on the “movement,” which already exists and already has machinery of its own in place. That seems to be how she catapulted herself onto the stage of state politics several years ago.
B) Fred Dalton Thompson. He didn’t declare for months after the primary season opened. He assembled “virtual” machinery, recording YouTube videos from a small studio in his house. He skipped debates and continued to party like a private citizen. He didn’t network, didn’t fundraise, and took too long to put together a platform on the issues – and when he did get around to doing that, he didn’t look or sound all that different than the guys who had been out on the campaign trail for months. He didn’t win a single delegate and got only eight unelected delegates to commit to him before he released them to McCain.
An unorthodox campaign style with “new machinery” did not produce President Fred Thompson – for all the talk of the “new machinery” Obama assembled, a scandalous amount of his electoral power came from old-fashioned volunteer work, and even more old-fashioned dirty tricks like ballot-box stuffing and polling-place thuggery. What was new about Obama was that he found a new way to build the old-fashioned machinery. What was new about Fred Thompson was that his non-traditional campaign produced non-traditional results.
C) Rudolph William Lewis Giuliani. Remarkable personal charisma and six years’ worth of groundwork raising money for himself and for the political allies he sought as backers was not enough for Rudy! to find purchase in the Republican Party. Too many strange things from his past, too many bad decisions made along the campaign trail. Now, in his case, he did not reverse position on abortion, but he did promise “movement conservatives” that he would appoint “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court, and as we all know, “strict constructionist” is conservative code for “Will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,” something that is so far on top of the conservatives’ wish list that they seem willing to forgive nearly anything else a politician or a judge does as long as they do that.
Sarah Palin, too, has outstanding personal charisma and unlike Rudy! she is personally pro-life and does not need to cozy up to the religious right on this issue. Now, I presume that if she is quitting now to lay the groundwork for a run full-time and from a location more convenient than Juneau or Wasilla. She will do the same thing that Rudy! did from 2002 to 2008 by whoring himself out to other candidates to give speeches and lend his political support and fundraising ability to them. Palin, too, can only try to make the right friends by raising money and making campaign appearances for them in 2010. But making very strange decisions – personal, policy, and political – are a pattern that can be found in Sarah Palin’s abbreviated political history, as well. The resignation is only the culmination of a series of odd decisions she’s made, from “going maverick” in the middle of the McCain campaign to letting herself get interviewed in front of a working open-air poultry slaughterhouse to demanding new elections for Senator after it seemed to her the voters of Alaska voted wrong. And this bodes very poorly for her abilities as a candidate.
As promised, here is my thesis for Sarah Palin’s unproven executive ability. Sure, Alaska has a balanced budget, but that’s because it makes so damn much money on its excise tax that a fourth-grader could balance the state’s budget. Palin’s brief tenure as Governor of Alaska has been highlighted by a number of ethics investigations that found the Governor to have abused her authority but which lacked the teeth to punish her in the face of a generally-friendly Legislature — the most high profile of which she claimed exonerated her when in fact the exact opposite was true. Also, she presided over the the creation of a natural gas pipeline that had been in the works for four years before she assumed office, vacillated on accepting Federal pork money, and the institution of helicopter wolf hunts (which may make sense if you accept the idea that wolves in Alaska needed to be culled, but it just looks bad and besides, this is hardly a towering accomplishment). She took on some corruption in her own party, which was good, but has been unable to escape the taint of corruption herself. You can find the rumors about how her really nice house got built yourself.
Second, whether there is a scandal or corruption problems with her or not, it looks like she’s stepping down because she has something she wants to hide. You could say, “She wants to protect her family from this evil media machine,” and I’d totally respect that if it were true. But if she refuses to endure the media circus, then that means that she doesn’t want to run for President (at least, in a way which would be reasonably calculated to her actually winning). The fact that it looks like she’s running out of the kitchen because she can’t stand the heat is what’s important, because perception matters more than reality. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that the scandal she is ducking has to do with her time as Mayor of Wasilla rather than as Governor of Alaska, with a deal that looks really similar to the Ted Stevens scandal.
(An aside: Palin didn’t win any points with me for sticking up for Ted Stevens, either. That’s not to say I think the prosecutors handled the case against him well, because they didn’t. Stevens is a free man now because the prosecutors overstepped the case. But to say the prosecutors screwed up the case is not the same thing as saying Stevens was innocent. The evidence strongly suggests he was on the take, and we don’t need a figure of towering, arrogant, unapologetic corruption as a leader in the GOP. We now return to the peroration of your regularly-scheduled jeremiad.)
There were people — nearly all of them self-identified “movement conservatives” — who wanted Dan Quayle to run for President in 1996, in 2000 and even still had a few die-hard proponents early in the 2008 cycle. Quayle’s supporters were attracted to the former Vice President for the same sort of visceral reason that they are attracted to Governor Palin now: he was an object of derision and hate by the left and they felt sympathy for him as a whipping boy who didn’t really deserve the abuse he got. This was a reaction to a choice made by the Left. Had the Left not savaged Quayle so thoroughly, the Right would have picked a different avatar.
This was, and still is, bad politics — don’t let the Left pick your candidates for you because they’re going to pick the one that they think they can beat easiest. That person, right now, is Sarah Palin. Ever since her resignation, every Democrat I know has said, “I hope this means she does run for President, and I hope you guys are dumb enough to nominate her.” This is the political equivalent of the double-dog dare. These Democrats say that not because they fear or despise Palin. (Well, they do despise her, but that’s because she’s a “gender-traitor,” a woman who dares to adhere to a political point of view at variance with the “feminist” constellation of policy positions.) It’s because like Republicans, they like winning. And hey’re convinced they can beat her.
You may (correctly) think the Democrats are wrong-headed about (many of) their policies, and you may find them (more or less correctly) to be morally bankrupt as a political unit and as represented by their leadership. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re stoooopid.
Dan Quayle was irrelevant in 2000 and even more irrelevant in 2008, and he had the good sense to realize that. He shows up to events, speaks to the rank-and-file faithful, raises some money, and then he goes home. Dan Quayle’s past is Sarah Palin’s future.