For Palin, rules have never applied
Matthew E. Berger covered Palin’s vice presidential campaign as an embedded reporter for NBC News and National Journal. He is the author of a book on Palin’s campaign and political future, scheduled for release in the fall by Wiley. The article originally appeared on Politico.com. The views expressed are his own.
Standard Washington political rules state that any presidential aspirants must finish out their term, write a book, travel to Iowa and New Hampshire, and start talking policy. Any deviation from the norm suggests political suicide, and many analysts have spent the past few days writing Sarah Palin’s political obituary.
But Palin never learned the rules, and she certainly doesn’t play by them. Palin has her own set of rules, which minimizes the expertise of political veterans and relies almost entirely on her gut. As times got tough during her vice presidential campaign, Palin began to ignore the advice of those around her and started doing the things she relied on to win in Alaska, specifically directly attacking her critics and speaking more to local media. Whether her small-town politics translated well to the national stage didn’t seem to register with her.
And under her personal guidelines, Friday’s announcement makes sense. The timing and her unscripted words — full of metaphors of basketball and fishing — made clear the decision had been reached without full consultation or preparation with political advisers. Palin had decided on a path, consulted few outside her family and moved forward.
Certainly, Palin’s decision to resign stems in large part from frustration over how her identity has changed in the past 11 months. Her allies in Alaska and Washington say she seemed unhappy in recent weeks, exasperated by the negative media attention and her inability to effect change in Juneau. Her combative tone with Levi Johnston and David Letterman suggested a woman thinking more about her family than her political future. Palin’s mother even told friends and neighbors she did not know how much more the governor could stand.
Once Palin chose not to run for reelection, she likely calculated there was no reason to stay. Before she was the darling of social conservatives, Palin was the ethics reformer who beat an incumbent governor of her own party by speaking out against corruption and gubernatorial largesse. That character was who John McCain thought he was getting as a running mate, and Palin never relinquished her title as a reformer. In her mind, lame ducks are bad and prone to malfeasance, and therefore she shouldn’t be one.
Palin has always run toward those who are cheering the loudest for her, ignoring and angering allies and backers who helped her along the way. When she ran for mayor, it was social conservatives. As a gubernatorial candidate, it was those seeking good government. And because the anti-abortion community flocked to her vice presidential rallies, she quickly forgot she had been recruited by McCain to appeal to Hillary Clinton moderates.
Increasingly, Palin’s base of support has been outside Alaska. Republicans never worked well with her because she didn’t court them and often ran against their interests. Democrats who liked her a year ago now see her as the national embodiment of the Republican right. Palin needs to be where they will cheer her name. And that’s why she’s leaving the governor’s mansion. By hosting a talk show or giving speeches, she can surround herself with those who speak her language and she can bask in their support. It will likely be enough to give her a sense of confidence that she can win over the entire Republican Party as a candidate for president in 2012.
Palin earned a public reputation as a fighter, given her bouts with political enemies and media naysayers. But privately, she is quick to retreat when things get tough. On the vice presidential campaign trail, she would lower her head and ignore advisers during the bad days, blaming others for her mistakes. She was also quick to retreat, both in college and as a state oil and gas commissioner, when reality did not meet her expectation. It has worked for her before, positioning her for future, higher office. So why not do it again?
Just because Washington experts don’t see how Palin can go from one shortened term as governor to the White House doesn’t mean she doesn’t see it. Palin’s career has been marked by quick, unorthodox decisions that have often worked out well for her. In her calculations, only when she listened to Washington has she stumbled.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC
(Pictured above: A man holds a guitar with Governor of Alaska, and former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin’s last name written on it at America’s Tea Party held at Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas July 4, 2009. Organizers say the event is an effort to work against further government expansion, bailouts and irresponsible elected officials. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)