Sarah Palin’s challenge

Sunday was Sarah Palin’s last day as governor of Alaska. The reaction of friend and foe alike to her resignation announcement and the resignation itself are all the evidence anyone should need of the continuing interest in the lady from Alaska.

Democrats and liberals find Palin offensive in ways that seem almost irrational. In the days following her selection as John McCain’s running mate last year, ordinarily feminist journalists from The New York Times and other liberal publications made fun of the way she looks and wondered whether she’d really have time to raise a family and serve as vice president should she and McCain actually win. Left-wing bloggers went nuts, spreading all manner of rumors about her and her family, many of which were too tasteless to be repeated by more respectable news and opinion outlets.

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They found the woman offensive for the same reasons conservatives loved her. She was articulate and willing to stand up for her beliefs. She seemed proud of what she’s accomplished, comfortable with who she is and unashamed of her background and lifestyle. She electrified the GOP convention and gave a needed boost to McCain’s campaign. For a brief moment it looked like the two of them might actually win last November.

That, however, proved an impossible dream given the environment in which they were running. Even before the campaign was over, the finger-pointing began. McCain partisans reluctant to blame their man focused on Palin as the problem. Much of what was said or leaked was unfair, but Palin and her advisers should have expected it. Politicians and their advisers always look for others to blame, and failed vice presidential candidates are prime candidates for that blame.

Once she was hit by stories from people she had no doubt counted as allies (if not friends), Palin and her advisers seemed to withdraw into themselves. Her post-election image was that of a whiner who couldn’t seem to get things together. She and her staff made commitments they couldn’t keep, and in Alaska, where adversaries play a brand of political hardball that seems tough even to jaded Washingtonians, she couldn’t make a move without her enemies going after her.

Ethics complaints were filed daily in a serious effort to cripple her national ambitions. While no one except people addicted to the fever swamps of the left-wing Internet world take them seriously, they were costing the Palin family a fortune in legal fees because even frivolous charges have to be rebutted. Her ability to govern at home was crippled and she was unable to travel to collect either the adulation or chits that come to an aspiring national leader who shows up.

So Gov. Palin quit to be free to do whatever she desires. We know she feels strongly about a number of issues and wants to speak out on them. She can do that. She has a tremendous following and is an incredible political property. She can reach people others within her party cannot connect with as easily and can therefore be expected to be in demand. All of these things will be easier now. However, if she wants to run for president in 2012, resigning will make the road she faces more difficult in spite of the fact that in recent years unemployed national candidates with time on their hands have a leg up in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere because they can show up and collect those chits. Only senators who can ignore their jobs can compete with the unemployed. Governors are expected to put in something like a full day at the office.

Palin’s advisers missed the fact, though, that the successful unemployed candidate, like Ronald Reagan in 1980, George Bush in 1988 (who, as vice president, had what Tony Soprano might have dismissed as a classic “no-show” job) or even Richard Nixon in 1968, had already established his credentials as substantively “heavy” enough to handle the job he was seeking. Sarah Palin hasn’t done that.

Does this mean she can’t run for president in 2012 if she wants or that if she does she can’t win either her party’s nomination or the presidency? It does not, but it will make it more difficult, particularly since any disillusionment with Barack Obama will be blamed on his lack of experience when elected. Voters will be looking for someone they will be confident can handle national problems.

Without a job to demonstrate that she’s that person, Palin’s task could prove incredibly difficult.


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.