Say what you will about the still-governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. She sure knows how to separate the metaphorical men from the boys. How many figures of her national stature—for better or worse—could make so dramatic an announcement as she did on Friday afternoon and leave the rest of the country with no idea whatsoever what the hell it meant? Is it good for her or bad? Is it good for the country or bad? Is it brilliant? Is it nuts? Is she nuts? Are we as a people nuts to have let this nutty woman get as close to the White House as we did in the first place? (Doesn’t that McCain fellow have some ‘splaining to do?) It is a reflection on the Mystery of Palin, my friend Ed Kilgore notes, “that none of us has any real idea whether she's imminently headed in the direction of the Big House or the White House.”
Mary Matalin called Palin’s move “brilliant” and imagined that “shoppers at her local Wal-Mart in the Shenandoah would be whooping ‘hoo-rahs’ because of Ms. Palin’s continued popularity among conservative voters.”
Palin’s decision to quit her job without credibly explaining herself has put her punditocracy loyalists in a bind. Naturally, they are not going to bring up reports of alleged affairs, inconvenient tell-all tomes, potential political scandals, or the possibility of federal investigations. But Sarah was not much help to them, either. Parsing Palin’s statement, they were left to try to argue that it was not only efficacious but also honorable for Palin to quit the job to which she had been elected because:
•She did not want to be one of those governors who “just accept that lame-duck status, and they hit the road, they draw a paycheck, they kind of milk it”
•“Life is too short to compromise time and resources”
•(Unnamed) people have been mean to Trig
•She’s “doing what’s best for Alaska”
•She’s “taking [her] fight for what's right for Alaska in a new direction.”
•She knows “when it's time to pass the ball—for victory.”
•“Only dead fish ‘go with the flow.’"
Perhaps feeling a little guilty about all this—or maybe wishing Michael Jackson had managed to live for another week—Palin came back Saturday with a Facebook update explaining:
•“It’s about country”
•She “never thought [she] needed a title before one’s name to forge progress in America”
•She is “now looking ahead and how we can advance this country together with our values…”
How to spin it? William Kristol, who you might say invented Palin as a possible presidential prospect, was first out of the gate. But you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Tired, apparently, of wasting superlatives on this woman, he called the move “an enormous gamble” that “could be a shrewd one,” adding, “All in all, it's going to be a high-wire act. The odds are against her pulling it off. But I wouldn't bet against it.”
Way to take a stand, fella.
Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, proved more forthright. He credited Palin’s decision to her “realization” that some Alaskans did not support her or her agenda—or, as he put it, “the legislature in Alaska and that some bloggers and activists in Alaska are going to do everything they can to stymie her progress.” Apparently, no one explained that not everyone—not even the pesky bloggers—would respond to everything she said and did with hosannas and hallelujahs. So naturally she quit. Or as Mr. Ayers put it, “She realized that that was no longer going to be able to happen, because things had become so partisan…”
Mr. Ayers' enthusiasm was dwarfed, however, by that of Republican consultant Mary Matalin, who called the move “brilliant” as she imagined that “shoppers at her local Wal-Mart in the Shenandoah would be whooping ‘hoo-rahs’ because of Ms. Palin’s continued popularity among conservative voters.” (Not that Matalin has ever actually set foot in Wal-Mart, but leave that be for now.)
As for what’s next, Palinistas were filled with hope, as they had awfully little in the way of information. On FoxNews.com, Peter Ferrara, for instance, one of those excellent fellows who served in the Bush Justice Department, called the resignation “a brilliant liberating move for her career, and a potential turning point for the national conservative movement.”
Over at National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez viewed the move as “a real opportunity for her to show us her stuff—what's important to her, what she wants people to know about her, why we should pay attention to her, why we should consider her for the highest office in the land…” Her colleague Victor Davis Hanson, in a view endorsed by fellow NRO-ite Jonah Goldberg, was enthusiastic as well. “It matters not all that the Left writes her off as daffy, since they were going to do that whatever she did; the key is whether she convinces conservatives in eight year[s] of travel and reflection that she's a charismatic Margaret Thatcher-type heavyweight.”
You think the Thatcher thing a stretch? Well—talk about kismet—the Iron Lady happens to grace the cover this week’s Weekly Standard. There, Matthew Continetti, who is so invested in Palin that he is writing a book about her called The Persecution of Sarah Palin, agreed the speech demonstrated just “how tired she's become of the frivolous ethics complaints launched against her since she returned to Alaska in November 2008.” He notes that “Even Palin critics will admit that these complaints don't hold water and distract from state business,” though, funnily, he neglects to mention any Palin critics who actually say this. Freed from “these burdens,” quitting “now also allows Palin to travel the country freely, building networks of financial and popular support. She doesn't have to worry that visits to the Lower 48 may weaken her political standing back home. And retiring from the office in late July gives Palin more time to spend with her large family, too.”
Well, yeah, but on this point of traveling the Lower 48, have you noticed that the more people in normal-temperature America see of Palin, the less they like her? Ezra Klein offers up the bad news for Palinites— in charts. He quotes two political scientists who’ve studied the question observing, “Her marginal impact in vote-intention estimation models dwarfs that for any vice-presidential candidate we are aware of”—for the worse. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Palin’s favorable/unfavorable fell from 50/34 when McCain picked her last summer to 42/48 today.
All this says to me is if William Kristol’s still willing to bet on his girl, I’m good for, say, a million bucks that says we can forget about a nightmare like THIS.
We can talk about the odds later.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.