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July 7, 2009

Sarah Palin: A Strange End to a Stranger Career

Like few other things, Sarah Palin's vice presidential campaign last year was based on her ability to do it all, and struggle in the face of adversity. Yes, she could serve as governor with five kids, including one with special needs. Yes, she could persevere in the face of intense scrutiny from the media and from political opponents. "We must not blink, Charlie!" she stated over and over again in her infamous interview with Charles Gibson last fall.

Last week, Palin threw that all away, and blinked. The Alaska governor, bizarrely, announced her resignation last Friday, after only two and a half years in office. Palin announced the move in a rambling, 20-minute speech that touched on numerous subjects but did not state a specific, singular reason for the decision, apart from a desire to avoid lame-duck status. The speech, delivered late on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, most likely brought one of America's strangest political careers to a premature close.

What's the true story? Why would the conservative base's most popular political figure suddenly chuck her career, with little warning, and with even less compelling explanation? No one knows. There could be a coming scandal, or perhaps some other type of personal crisis. The details will almost certainly trickle out eventually.

Palin, it's strange to think, has been a national political figure for only 10 months. She was plucked from obscurity, with less than two years of experience as governor, and named John McCain's running mate. She got off to a strong start and showed at the Republican convention that she was not only more skilled at exciting and revving up the conservative base than McCain himself, but also much more so than any of the many candidates who ran in the GOP primaries.

But Palin later blew it, most notably with a pair of disastrous TV interviews (with Gibson, and later with Katie Couric) and a performance that made clear she had only rudimentary grasp of the issues and was woefully unprepared to even run for vice president, much less assume the office.

Palin's weak performance also allowed Barack Obama to neutralize his biggest weakness as a candidate that he had very little experience in national politics. Not only were Obama's four years in the Senate twice the length of Palin's service as governor, but even more importantly, it was obvious to anyone paying attention to the race that despite his lack of experience, Obama actually had a grasp of the issues and knew what he was talking about, while Palin did not.

Things eventually got even worse, with Palin feuding with McCain campaign operatives, a battle memorably chronicled in Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair piece, published just days before Palin's announcement. The sides sniped over everything from campaign strategy to clothes, with the battles continuing to rage long after the election's end.

But even worse than the incompetence and the infighting was this: Palin's 2008 run was littered with the type of bitter, divisive culture war politics that the electorate was pointedly not in the mood for. Her cheap shot-filled convention address and subsequent speeches were geared toward stirring up populist outrage about the awfulness of "elites," built around the idea that she was "folksy" and "one of you." It was a carbon copy of the 2000-era Bush strategy, and America, knowing where that led, didn't fall for it.

Palin's vice presidential candidacy failed on just about every possible level, unless you're of the belief, as many conservatives seem to be, that "pissing off liberals" is the sole criteria for success in politics.

This led into a counter-narrative, in which any and all criticism of Palin even the large amount that has come from the Republican side and the McCain campaign itself can be explained away by liberal media bias. All the media did to Palin was accurately report that she fell on her face as a candidate and afterward.

The only thing related to this for which I blame the media is its obsession, even years in advance, with horserace presidential politics. In the past week even with all the Michael Jackson hysteria cannibalizing news time I've seen three different discussions on cable news shows about what Republicans might run for president in 2012, who had a "good week" in that regard and how the race is affected by recent developments with Mark Sanford and now Palin. The '12 vote, you may remember, is three years and five months away.

Sarah Palin, we now know after last week, will never be president of the United States. This is hopefully the best thing for herself and her family, but it's an even better thing for us as a nation.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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