Sarah Palin is a living, breathing Rorschach test. It doesn’t really matter what she says or does: Her fans and critics will see whatever they want to see.
So when she suddenly quit as Alaska’s governor on Friday, the analyses about what it all meant were decisive, predictable and mostly wrong.
The critics, when they weren’t speculating that a massive scandal would soon be unearthed to explain Palin’s hasty exit, proclaimed Palin’s move an act of political suicide that would ruin whatever hopes she has of mounting a credible presidential campaign in 2012.
The best example came from Bruce Reed, an old Bill Clinton adviser, who wrote a weekend column for Slate titled “Quitters Never Win.” Reed’s contention: Presidential candidates in the last 20 years can be separated into two groups: “quitters” and “perseverers”—with only the perseverers having success.
As evidence, Reed offers the examples of Gary Hart, John Edwards and Bill Bradley—“strategic quitters” who left the Senate several years before seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and losing. Contrast that track record, Reed says, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom successfully sought reelection in their home states two years before winning the presidency, and you’ll understand why Palin’s resignation dooms her for ’12.
Reed’s history lesson amounts to a sweeping conclusion in search of supporting evidence—the hallmark of ideologically motivated political analysis. His interpretation is, to put it politely, conveniently selective and highly misleading.
First, consider the “strategic quitters” he cited. It’s true that Hart declined to seek reelection to his Senate seat in 1986 in order to run for the 1988 Democratic nomination, but that move had nothing to do with his defeat—it was his dalliance with Donna Rice in the spring of 1987 that did him in.
Reed fails to note that when the Rice scandal erupted, Hart—who had burst onto the national scene with his near-miss bid for the ’84 nod—was the overwhelming Democratic front-runner, fresh off a highly publicized trip to Moscow that had fortified his national security credentials. No one was seriously calling him a quitter for not seeking reelection in ’86, and it had no impact on his presidential campaign, so his example really doesn’t mean anything.
The same can be said of Edwards, who declined to seek a second Senate term in North Carolina in 2004. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that Edwards’ Senate exit actually enhanced his prospects; only after leaving Washington was he able to define himself as the conscience of his party’s grass roots, “courageously” lashing out at the timidity of Congressional Democrats in the face of the Iraq war and the Bush agenda. No, he didn’t end up winning, but he would have been just as overshadowed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had he stayed in the Senate, so his example doesn’t mean anything, either. (Reed also seems to suggest that Edwards wouldn’t have met Rielle Hunter had he stayed in the Senate; of course, it’s very possible he still would have—just as it’s possible he would have met another woman.)
Then there’s Bradley, whose 1996 exit from the Senate (after three terms) helped “cost him the Democratic nomination in 2000 to Al Gore, whose slogan was ‘stand and fight,’” according to Reed.
First, Gore’s refrain was actually “stay and fight.” Second, Reed forgets that Bradley actually had a solid rejoinder: “The problem is that people in Washington stay too long and fight too much.” More to the point, Bradley lost mainly because of the broad organizational and institutional support behind Gore, the popularity of Clinton and Bradley’s own lethargy on the stump. Does anyone seriously believe that Senator Bill Bradley would have fared any differently in 2000 than former Senator Bill Bradley did?
At the same time, Clinton’s ’92 election is hardly an advertisement for Reed’s “perseverer” theory. Actually (as Reed should remember), Clinton’s 1990 reelection campaign in Arkansas severely complicated his ’92 ambitions because he was forced to promise Arkansans that he’d serve out his term if reelected, and not run for president. It took him the first half of 1991 to ease his way out of that pledge—and only a once-in-a-generation vacuum on the Democratic side (thanks to the early ’91 Gulf War, which froze the Democratic race and kept the big names out) allowed him to get away with it.
And, of course, Reed neglects the other cases of campaigns that were clearly enhanced by “strategic quitting.” Like Mitt Romney, who, facing certain defeat in a bid for a second term as Massachusetts’ governor in 2006, opted out and headed off to run for president. He didn’t win the G.O.P. nomination, but he came close—and, if history is any guide, he’s now the man to beat for the ’12 Republican nod. Similarly, Mike Huckabee also declined to wage an iffy reelection campaign in Arkansas in 2006. Like Romney, he didn’t win the G.O.P. nod, but he sure exceeded expectations—and is sitting pretty as ’12 approaches.
Oh, and let’s not forget George Allen, who “persevered” his way right out of the 2008 presidential mix by seeking reelection to the Senate in Virginia in 2006, only to lose to Jim Webb.
You get the point. Reed may want Palin to fail in ’12, and she may well fail if she does run. But history is, at best, neutral on the subject.
Not that Palin’s fans are immune to such wishful analysis. “Brilliant” was how Mary Matalin (last seen insisting that all was peachy in Fred Thompson-land) described Palin’s move. Over at Fox News, “a brilliant, liberating move,” was Peter Ferrara’s take. This smacks of hyperbolic overcompensation: Palin’s enemies are shouting about how reckless and suicidal her resignation supposedly is, so her friends counter by treating it like a masterstroke for the ages.
At the end of the day, though, the reality is that Palin’s move is neither suicidal nor brilliant. In terms of the odds of Sarah Palin ever becoming president, it doesn’t actually change much.
So people who think Sarah Palin is a ridiculous figure in the first place now claim that it’s ridiculous to think that a woman who resigns the governorship of Alaska 32 months after winning it could somehow be a serious presidential candidate in ’12. In a perfect world, they’d be right. But reality, as we saw last fall, has little to do with politics—particularly within a shrinking Republican Party that is increasingly dominated by its most reactionary elements.
These are the folks who flocked, by the tens of thousands, to Palin rallies last fall—utterly indifferent to the left’s assertions that a woman who two years earlier had been mayor of a town of 8,000 people wasn’t prepared for the presidency. Palin may lose a few Republican friends over this, but by and large, the G.O.P. base—with whom she scored a 73 percent favorable rating two weeks ago—will excuse and rationalize her resignation, just as they excused and rationalized her thin résumé last fall. They see what they want to see.
Before last Friday, there were three top-tier prospects for the ’12 G.O.P. nomination: Romney, (by far) the most likely winner; Huckabee, the second choice; and Palin, with popularity deep enough to make her a serious factor but probably not broad enough to actually secure the nod. That dynamic has not been appreciably altered. It also seemed clear that Palin, if she were somehow to win the nomination, would be the G.O.P.’s Walter Mondale—a symbol to the general-election audience of everything they’d rejected four years earlier and a certain loser. That remains true as well.
Palin’s exit as a governor seems most likely to reinforce opinions—not to change them.