Can Sarah Palin make political hay by walking away from her job?
Late last Friday, while I was in the throes of holiday eve logistics, the word came down from Alaska that Sarah Palin had decided to quit her job. Most scribes immediately rushed to their keyboards, eager to divine her thinking. I did not. All I could think of was a stray lyric from a Jackson Browne song, circa 1993: "I don't care about Madonna / or the next thing she might do..."
But now it's Tuesday morning, my holiday is over, Michael Jackson is still dead, and Sarah Palin is still discoursing in her inimitable free-form verse - slinging fish on the Today Show, saying again that, gosh, she doesn't know what's gonna be next for her, but one thing she does know is that "I am a fighter, I thrive on challenge."
Actually, she's not a fighter. She's a quitter. And Americans don't like quitters. As Vince Lombardi used to say, "Winners never quit, and quitters never win," and we all know what Americans think of Vince Lombardi. (What other iconic footballer has a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop named after him?)
Back at the GOP convention 10 months ago, Palin stressed the importance of being an elected executive: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." How's it going to play, with many Republicans, now that she has walked away from her "actual responsibilities?"
Millions of speculative words already have been written and spoken about her imminent abdication; apparently, there is a widely-held belief that she has quit as governor of Alaska in order to pursue some sort of master plan. I wonder about that. If her basic thought pattern is anything like her basic speech pattern ("it may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand, sit down and shut up, but that's the worthless easy path, that's a quitter's way out"), then it's likely she has no idea about the next thing she might do.
All she says for sure is that being governor wasn't fun anymore, especially with so many people (including Alaskan Republican lawmakers) saying such mean things about her, and filing (in her words) "ridiculous, frivolous, wasteful" ethics complaints against her. Plus, during this sour economic climate, Alaska faces some of the same tough budget choices bedeviling other states - and that wouldn't be fun to manage, either. So she simply quit, with a year and a half remaining in her first and only term.
What interests me most is how her cut-and-run decision will play out within the framework of a 2012 Republican primary season, assuming that she joins the fray.
Is it conceivable to believe that her rivals will give her a pass on quitting in the middle of a fight, on leaving her home-state constituents in the lurch? Hardly. For at least three candidates in the GOP field - Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty - Palin's decision to quit is potentially a weapon they can use against her.
Romney is an ex-Massachusetts governor who completed one term. Huckabee is an ex-Arkansas governor who completed two terms. Pawlenty, currently the governor of Minnesota, will soon complete two terms. It's a cinch to see how they would contrast themselves with Palin. They wouldn't have to frontally attack her as a quitter; they could do so merely by inference. Romney, during the '12 primaries, could simply say something like this: "You know, I was governor of America's bluest state, I had to deal with critics and Democrats every day of my tenure, but I hung in there, I fought for my constituents, and I'm glad I persevered, because I got positive things done, including health insurance for the people I pledged to serve."
Indeed, Huckabee has already fired his first rhetorical probe. On Fox News Sunday, he was asked to comment on Palin's argument that it had become too difficult for her to stay on the job. Huckabee quickly replied: "Well, if that had been the case for me, I'd have quit about my first month, because I was a Republican governor in a state where 89 percent of my legislature were Democrats. I had constant ethics complaints filed against me, even by newspaper editors, and a lot of it was because if they can't attack you on policy, what they do - they just absolutely bombard you with personal attacks and keep you tied up in court, make you hire lawyers. Been there, done that...The experience that I had in Arkansas politics was far more brutal than running for president."
We can all debate whether Huckabee was being a tad hyperbolic, whether indeed he had a worse time in Arkansas than Palin had on the national trail last autumn; the point is, he signaled on Sunday that he has every intention of labeling her a quitter, and he won't be the only one. Others on the Republican right are already doing the same; as conservative strategist Craig Shirley remarked yesterday, the timing of Palin's announcement - on the eve of the holiday when we honor the American colonial rebels - was unfortunate. After all, "they lived in the shadow of the British gallows for years. All Palin had to do was finish another year and a half in Juneau."
Americans love a fighter; the basic template for a politician was established 99 years ago by Theodore Roosevelt, who praised the man in the arena "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly..." There was nothing in that speech about quitting when the going got tough.
Palin said Friday that she didn't want "to just hunker down (in the job) and go with the flow. Nah, only dead fish go with the flow." But, if we assume she still has an interest in 2012, she might have just made it easier for her rivals to hook her.
Meanwhile, during her Friday rumination, she said:
"I'm doing what's best for Alaska. I've explained why. Though I think of the saying on my parents' refrigerator that says, 'Don't explain. Your friends don't need it, and your enemies won't believe you anyway.'"
Just wondering...If your parents had a saying, affixed to their refrigerator, that divvied up the world into "friends" and "enemies," wouldn't you think it was a little weird?