There is no subject on which I get more e-mails than Sarah Palin. Her devoted supporters are aghast that I could criticize her for lack of political gravitas. Her foes can’t understand how I could defend her from biased media attacks in 2008 and critique her pronouncements and communications strategy in 2011. (Really, fellas, can you not figure out the pattern here? Hint: defend her when criticism is unfair or inaccurate and criticize her when it’s deserving.) A new piece by Joshua Green in Atlantic (ironically the past home to the most deranged Palin conspiracy monger and misogynist) tells the tale of her descent from Olympian political heights, perfectly encapsulating the disappointment experienced by those who saw great promise and a unique political talent in 2008.
Green accurately recollects her undeniable political moxie and skill: her electrifying convention speech, her assault on Alaskan corruption and her adept maneuvering as governor:
As governor, Palin demonstrated many of the qualities we expect in our best leaders. She set aside private concerns for the greater good, forgoing a focus on social issues to confront the great problem plaguing Alaska, its corrupt oil-and-gas politics. She did this in a way that seems wildly out of character today — by cooperating with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on Big Business. And she succeeded to a remarkable extent in settling, at least for a time, what had seemed insoluble problems, in the process putting Alaska on a trajectory to financial well-being.
He documents in great detail her success as governor, in which she demonstrated qualities that critics found absent later in her career: “Palin has gained a reputation for being erratic, undisciplined, not up to the job. But that wasn’t how she looked as governor. She began by confronting the two biggest issues in Alaska — the gas pipeline and the oil tax — and drove the policy process on both of them.” Far from being an ideologue she was intensely pragmatic: “She kept herself focused, too: though priding herself on her well-advertised social conservatism, she was prepared to set it aside when necessary. Rather than pick big fights about social issues, she declined to take up two abortion-restriction measures that she favored, and vetoed a bill banning benefits for same-sex partners of state workers.”
So what went wrong, in Green’s view? His theory:
A big part of the answer is that the qualities that brought her original successes — the relentlessness, the impulse to settle scores — weren’t nearly so admirable when deployed against less worthy foes than [Frank] Murkowski and the oil companies. In Alaska, she applied those qualities to fulfilling the promises that got her elected, and in her first year was the most popular governor in the country. . . . Palin seems to have been driven by a will to advance herself and by a virulent animus against anyone who tried to impede her. But this didn’t prevent her from being an uncommonly effective governor, while she lasted. On the big issues, at least, she chose her enemies well, and left the state in better shape than most people, herself included, seem to realize or want to credit her for. It’s odd that someone so preoccupied with her image hasn’t gotten this across better. And it raises the question of what she could have achieved.
One can’t but feel that Palin was not only snared in the web of resentment but that it determined a particular course for her post-2008 career. She embarked on a particular path, one incompatible with being a serious force on conservative policy and a credible presidential contender. You can understand how easy and alluring (not to mention profitable) became the new role as political martyr. The “lamestream media” perfectly encapsulated the Joan of Arc complex, the blame-game and the focus on herself that swamped her public image.
But one can’t really call it a “tragedy” as Green does. She’s attained fame and fortune and she has as loyal a following as any popular figure. But she made a choice — to bear grudges, to forgo serious policy study, to reject the advice of all but a handful of advisers. It is a shame for those who saw a star-quality and enviable political talent. But tragedy? No. She simply chose a different path.