Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day III: Sarah Palin reinvents herself

Not to be outdone by other global and national events in the runup to the national holiday, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made an announcement on Friday that immediately generated its own baffling brand of fireworks.

In a rambling address from her home in Wasilla, Palin announced her intention to resign as governor effective at the end of the month, speaking in a statement part 1960-Nixonian valedictory, part chamber-of-commerce report card, part life strategy, part love letter to family … but mostly an oration as revealing about what it said about Palin’s future as what it didn’t say.

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“Life is too short to compromise time and resources,” Palin said Friday outside her home, on the splendid shores of Lake Lucille. “And though it may be tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up, but that's a worthless, easy path. That's a quitter’s way out. And I think a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow.

“We're fishermen. We know that only dead fish go with the flow.

“No, productive, fulfilled people determine where to put their efforts, choosing to wisely utilize precious time to build up. And there is such a need to build up and fight for our state and our country. And I choose to fight for it.

“So I choose for my state and for my family more freedom to process all the way around so that Alaska may progress. I will not seek reelection as governor. …”

“Let me go back quickly to a comfortable analogy for me, and that's sports -- basketball. …

“A good point guard, here's what she does. She drives through a full-court press, protecting the ball, keeping her head up because she needs to keep her eye on the basket. And she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win. And that is what I'm doing — keeping our eye on the ball that represents sound priorities. Remember, they include energy independence and smaller government and national security and freedom. And I know when it's time to pass the ball for victory.”

Lieutenant Gov. Sean Parnell is to be sworn in in Fairbanks on July 26.

That scream you hear is the Republican Party.

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Political analysts and other readers of the tea leaves in Washington are trying to sort it all out, attempting to sort out the mystery of Sarah Palin. To this observer of politics, it’s not so difficult to understand.

Palin’s use of a quotation that may have originated with Gen. Douglas MacArthur — its gist has also been attributed to Marine Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith — tells a lot of the story. The idea that she’s not retreating but just advancing in another direction indicates a willingness to retrench and redouble her efforts at achieving the same goals she’s had as governor.

Palin is a political animal; we’ve known that since last August, when she became John McCain’s running mate. Palin is also an iconoclast, a political original, as even a cursory look at her life story will show. The drubbing in the media and the blogosphere that she’s taken since then — over her qualifications to run for the vice presidency, her personal style, aspects of her governing style in Alaska, her family’s dramas — hasn’t prevented the development of a hardcore bloc of Palin supporters from within the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Among those in the GOP leadership, there’s a division of opinion about the wisdom of Palin’s decision to vacate the governor’s chair, a logical place from which to seek the presidency, and one with a built-in power base.

John Weaver, a GOP strategist and former adviser to the McCain campaign, was all over the place on Friday. “Good point guards don’t quit and walk off the floor if the going gets tough,” he told The New York Times. “Today’s move falls further into the weirdness category; people don’t like a quitter.”

Weaver really piled on on Friday; that’s when he also told The Washington Post’s Dan Balz that “if this is about running for president, it’s about as odd a way as we’ve ever seen.”

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This is no doubt the thinking of the GOP hierarchy, thinking that points to an abundant lack of imagination. The Republicans have always been about power: the accrual of power; the use of power for its own sake; the use of power as a means of leveraging more power.

To them, it’s inconceivable that a sitting governor would surrender a position of power in order to pursue the presidency. That kind of strategy just doesn’t feature in the Republican mentality.

Which is why Palin’s gambit could be an incredibly shrewd move. Retreating and advancing are terms highly subject to interpretation. What looks like a retreat to the conventional thinking may be anything but on a wider scale of things.

Palin is playing cagey about her real future plans; she spoke on Friday of her future in a context wide-open enough to be interpreted in a number of ways. Part of what she said sounded like a goodbye to electoral politics; there was passion and deep anger in some of her statement, especially as it related to the media spotlight on her family.

But there was little or nothing she said Friday to suggest she couldn’t be serious about a presidential run. Palin discovered in the 2008 campaign a standing rule of presidential politics for generations: A ticket derives its energy from the name at the top, not the name on the bottom. The McCain campaign reckoned too late with that immutable election-year calculus. It’s a safe bet that Palin won’t make that mistake. If she wants to go that way.

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Palin’s supporters have already given her one of the things she’d need if she were to make a run at the big chair in 2012: a passionate following, something the Republican usual suspects have had a hard time developing — something the wave of recent scandals in their ranks will make ever harder to find.

And the political kingmakers are making the assumption that any presidential aspirations Palin may harbor are limited to the horizon of the next four years. Why is 2012 the sell-by date, anyway? In 2016, Palin will be 52 years old, five years older then than President Obama is right now.

For all the oddities in Palin’s personal narrative, there’s so far been nothing that’s an absolute deal-breaker for a candidate seeking a relationship with the American people. She’s strange and quirky; her use of the American idiom of English is original, to say the least; her personal story is definitely out of left field; and Palin definitely needs not just coaching on international affairs, but a solid, reasoned throughline on what the modern world tick and what her contribution to that modern world would be.

But in some important ways, what Sarah Palin needs is what Sarah Palin’s already got: People who believe passionately in someone who believes passionately in herself.

Maybe it’s possible to actually see the White House from land in Alaska, too.
Image credits: Basketball: Reisio (public domain). MacArthur at Leyte: U.S. Army Signal Corps (public domain).

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