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ANALYSIS

Recriminations Over Sarah Palin Mask Deeper GOP Troubles

Whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has a national political future is but one of the debates swirling around in the Republican Party, which saw its minority status underscored this week with Democrat Al Franken's Senate victory.
Whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has a national political future is but one of the debates swirling around in the Republican Party, which saw its minority status underscored this week with Democrat Al Franken's Senate victory. (By Josue L. Escobosa -- U.s. Navy Via Associated Press)

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By Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 2, 2009

On the same day Republicans surrendered a symbolically significant seat in the Senate, the Sarah Palin wars erupted again inside the party. Leaks followed by trash-talking followed by recriminations.

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The latest Palin flare-up began in Vanity Fair with a lengthy article by Todd S. Purdum examining the Alaska governor's past and her potential future. The controversy migrated instantly to the Web and the blogs -- it was, in fact, made for the viral communication that dominates today's politics -- and became even more intense, nasty and personal.

The Palin controversy highlights personal enmities and strategic disagreements among Republicans. The victory by Democrat Al Franken over Republican Norm Coleman for a U.S. Senate seat representing Minnesota, though long anticipated, drives home the degree to which Republicans are now a true minority party. Together, the controversies are another double blow to the weakened party.

Republicans grappling with how to respond to their latest setback in the Senate were appalled by the sniping over Palin. The criticism in Vanity Fair and the angry reaction by Palin defenders echoed the breakdown that occurred at the end of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. For several days this fall, the two camps fired at each other at the expense of both Palin and McCain. The charges and countercharges aimed at Palin were, to many Republicans, shocking and inexcusable, a messy end to a dispiriting campaign. But that was not the end. Seven months later, it continues.

Palin's performance as McCain's vice presidential running mate created a wide gulf in public opinion between those who found her fresh and appealing and those who found her shallow and unready. That she divided Democrats from Republicans was not the surprise. But as the campaign went on, and even more since, she has become a source of division within the Republican Party, at least among GOP strategists, insiders and talking heads.

Through Palin, scores are still being settled over McCain's failed presidential campaign. To those who were on the inside, there was virtually no way for McCain to defeat former senator Barack Obama in a year when President George W. Bush's approval rating lagged below 30 percent and when more than eight in 10 Americans thought the country was on the wrong track. To those on the outside, McCain's defeat may have been likely but not certain. In their view, Obama's victory was aided by mismanagement and poor strategy atop his rival's campaign.

This was that foundation upon which the latest exchanges have taken place, with William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Steve Schmidt, who was one of McCain's top advisers, carrying on a public argument. The exchanges were vicious, if perhaps of interest only to a small community of GOP insiders, but they keep alive a debate likely to rage on as Palin decides her future.

She is, in the estimation of many Republicans and even some Democrats, the most charismatic Republican in the country. She also has generated a small but vociferous cadre of detractors inside the party who question her capacity and her judgment, particularly as a possible 2012 candidate, and who continue to carry on the fight.

Beyond the debate over Palin's strengths and weaknesses is the broader question of whither the Republican Party. Palin is a proxy in that dispute, but that debate came into sharper focus with the Minnesota Supreme Court decision handing the Senate seat to Franken.

The outcome drives home to Republicans the depths of their condition. They are now truly the minority party. Democrats will have 60 senators who caucus with them, theoretically allowing them to shut down any GOP filibusters and have their way on critical votes.

That 60-vote threshold is more symbolic than real. With Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) both ailing, and with some moderate Democrats prepared to walk away on some key votes, the Democrats cannot be certain of having 60 votes on any given issue. But that is small consolation to Republicans.

In the short term, Republican leaders plan a two-pronged strategy. First, they will try to keep the heat on moderate, red-state Democratic senators in an effort to force them to resist voting for President Obama's major initiatives. "The goal is try to affect the end result knowing they have the votes from Day One," said a top GOP Senate aide who was not authorized to speak publicly about tactics.

Second, Republicans plan to blame Democrats for any failures in policy or inaction. "I can say without hesitation that this government is totally theirs now, and everything that comes out of it and everything that results from it is on their plate," Republication National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

Republican strategists say that they will target more conservative Democratic senators such as Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (both Ark.), and Ben Nelson (Neb.). The approach will be to publicly attack Democratic ideas until they are so unpopular in relatively conservative states that members such as Landrieu cannot back them. This tactic worked when Republicans won a vote in the Senate that stripped funding to implement Obama's plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But some Republican strategists said the Coleman defeat ought to generate a broader reexamination of the party's status rather than simply a review of its legislative tactics. "For [Coleman] to lose to Al Franken has to be a wake-up call to Republicans that the brand is what brought Coleman down," GOP strategist John Feehery said. "Hopefully that will spark a bigger strategic discussion about how to prevent the brand from bringing other people down."

Palin is an irresistible personality around whom the arguments about the Republican future continue to swirl. But the events of this week reflect deeper arguments inside a party that cannot yet be sure if it has hit bottom -- as Coleman's departure from the Senate reminds all Republicans.


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