As is so often the case with Palin, speculation about her reveals more about us than it does about her.
Palin spoke, in what came across to me as the most premeditated and carefully thought-out part of her announcement speech, of being a point guard in a basketball game, and knowing when to pass off the ball, or knowing when to call an audible – either of which, in her analogy, is a means of advancing the team’s fortunes through scoring, or at least of getting into better position to score. The implication is that there is a project underway larger than each individual player, and that it is the priority. The objective of the project is what you design your actions and priorities around. Strategy, tactics, personnel assignments – all put together to achieve the objective.
It occurred to me that the references to this sports concept left implied but unspoken an ancillary concept: that you don’t stay with a game plan past when it stops working. A football analogy (naturally) is what came to mind in this regard. When the opponent’s whole defensive secondary has Terrell Owens completely covered on every play, go to Jason Witten. Mix your plays up, get the defense to shift its coverage, break T.O. loose again. (Yes, I know T.O.’s gone.) In some ways, we might say Palin has been T.O., double- and triple-covered by the political opposition (including the media) for almost the last year.
I considered this analogy the heart of Palin’s announcement. She emphasized it rhetorically, and had obviously put thought into it. This passage is, in fact, her explanation of why she’s doing this. It is a tactician’s move – an offensive coordinator’s move. (I just do better with football.) It doesn’t look from here like a head coach’s move, one made from the strategic heights, or made when one decision means the whole ball of wax, like whether to go for it on 4th and 8 with a minute on the clock, when the field goal is a long shot for your kicker and would only tie the game.
This decision of Palin’s is not a do-or-die “Hollywood moment” decision, sports-analogy-wise. It’s a workmanlike, 3rd-quarter-adjustment tactical decision – and the question it should lead to is, what does Palin conceive the objective of the game to be?
We’re so used to conventional politics that the pundits, and probably many of us, assume immediately that we know the answer. Why, Palin in the Oval Office, of course! That must be the objective. What other political objective is there?
Which is why everyone is discussing her resignation in that framework: how it would affect a run for president. Has she made a smart decision that clears her calendar for a national run? Has she made a stupid decision that loads her with eccentric baggage for a national run? That about covers the aspects of the “national run” topic.
There are, of course, those who think she’s probably just tired of it all. Can’t finish the race. Couldn’t handle the pressure. All the negative press too much for her. She picked the Friday-before-a-holiday-weekend-black-hole news window to hand poor David Frum his early birthday present.
Can we step aside for a minute, and recognize how politics-as-usual these conceptual ruts are, in which all the speculation is running? I think there are a lot of smart people out there in the political punditry – people whose opinions and analysis I respect. But every analysis so far has been conventional. Charles Krauthammer on Fox: this is an erratic move, she can’t overcome it for a run at 2012. Bill Kristol: “risky but shrewd” move (as paraphrased by Stephen Hayward at The Corner) to position herself for 2016 or 2020. Rick Brookhiser, also at The Corner: cutting and running; implication: bad for national aspirations. Quin Hillyer, The American Spectator: pretty much the same; “dereliction of duty.” Rich Lowry: inauspicious start for a 2012 run. Amy Holmes: disgraceful; another one (GOP possibility) bites the dust. Allahpundit at Hot Air: Nixonian (“won’t have me to kick around any more”) strategy. Bypass next quadrennial free shot, time final buzzer at ’16.
There you go. There’s a single way you operate in politics, and the rules are that the objective is the political office, and everything you do is designed to catapult you into it. There is one profile of fitness for political office, and no leeway to deviate from it. After all, you can’t get either approved by political pundits, or chosen for national tickets, unless you operate by the rules and meet the fitness profile.
Maybe they are right, the pundits. They have made their living observing politics, many of them for decades. Maybe they are right about what it takes to succeed in getting on a national ticket, and latching onto that brass ring hooked to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But I’m not so sure. Ten years ago I would probably have reacted just as they are reacting. I would have assumed that there is a pattern to national politics that cannot be broken: lots of ways out, only one way in. I might even have done what they are doing, and focused on every part of Palin’s speech except the sports analogy. (They seem, to a pundit, to consider it a rambling, unfocused, and very poor speech. I thought it was hurried: not Palin’s best-paced speech ever, but it communicated what she wanted to say quite effectively.)
Today, however, I share the strong sense of many, many Americans that there is something lurking in our future that is going to change a lot of things for us. A number of old rules that we have thought unbreachable are going to be turned on their heads. Counting out any politician because of an unspoken-rules breach doesn’t look so wise in 2009 – nor does interpreting what politicians do solely in light of the rules for calculating political advantage.
I think it is just possible that Sarah Palin used her sports analogy because it conveys, more accurately than any other analogy, how she views this resignation. And I don’t think she sees the objective of the “game” as getting herself into the Oval Office. I think she see it in the terms in which she spoke of it today: as guaranteeing freedom and security for America. To the jaded ears of political pundits, her references to these quantities probably sound like cheap bromides. But she frames them whenever she speaks – as she did so memorably in her convention speech last year – as the things that she, and we, are striving for.
The objective of the game she has committed to playing is to promote liberty, prosperity, and security for the nation – and it is very possible that it’s not clear in her mind, at this moment, exactly what role she will play in that. She knows she is still in the game, but her role in the offensive game plan may be shifting for tactical reasons. And she has to consider the dead weight her over-covered team position is at the moment, for the state of Alaska – which she probably sees as a bastion of the American ideal, in senses both practical and philosophical. Promoting a future of liberty and prosperity for Alaska is part and parcel of doing so for America; and that has meanings unique to Alaska that she thinks are jeopardized by the focused hostility of the national left toward her.
It should not really surprise us that Palin might see politics as a field of endeavor in which agility, and the ability to change tactics and positional assignments rapidly, are advantageous. She has obviously never been committed to, or enamored of, the stately pace of “politics as usual.” She does come off as seeing herself more as a hardworking, high-proficiency athlete than as the more typical national-level politician frequently sees himself: in the guise of a royal personage with an entourage, and tenure in his own space-time continuum.
Commentators like Rick Brookhiser and Quin Hillyer will resonate with many, in advancing their opinion that Palin’s behavior just comes off as irresponsible. But I am not sure they, or many of the other established pundits, really understand how deeply disgusted millions of Americans are with the profile of politics-as-usual. We have had nothing but politicians who stayed in their jobs, like they’re supposed to, for years now. Everyone who gains even the smallest approval from the pundits and the GOP leadership fits the profile. Cursus honorem: representative, senator, senator-for-life, governor. There are plenty of politicians-as-usual. And they all disappoint conservatives by growing government instead of paring it, spending instead of cutting back, compromising instead of standing firm, and backing down time and again from confrontations with disastrous Democratic policies.
There are many, many – many – Americans who are no longer impressed with the qualities even the smartest political pundits consider essential in our politicians. We’ve had all the politicians who do everything the way they are supposed to – and their record is inexpressibly unimpressive. Many people have reached the point of saying, Don’t tell me only a politician who follows your set of rules is good for me. The rule-followers are the ones who have given us a national deficit so colossal we almost certainly can’t recover from it without severe economic dislocation – and an anomic, irresponsible, ignorant, and yet irrationally arrogant electoral demographic that voted Barack Obama into office, and threatens to make sure that government of, by, and for the people shall, if they have anything to do with it, perish from the earth, by next Thursday – and covered in a “Townhall” by ABC.
What we are enduring today is the America that the politics-as-usual rule-followers have delivered for us. It is far from unreasonable to recognize that having a comfortably conventional political profile, one that pleases Charles Krauthammer and Rick Brookhiser, is no indicator that a politician will guard constitutionalism, limitations on government, and individual liberty.
So it is early days to write Palin off. But it is also early days to guess that she is positioning herself to run for president in 2012. I don’t think she defines the “game” in terms of herself winning political office. I think she defines it in terms of the effect produced for America and our political future.
I have one more theory to offer, and it relates to the point that her move, with this resignation, is a tactical one. If she is the tactician – the offensive coordinator, changing the attack to adjust to the defense’s strategy – who is the head coach? Who has the strategic vision?
Here’s what I think. Take or leave it as you will. Sarah Palin is an evangelical Christian, and in my opinion, she thinks of God as the head coach: the one with the strategy for the whole game, as regards both herself, and the fate of the United States. I suspect the idea of resigning has been in her mind, and she has turned it over and over and asked for guidance about it from God. And I suspect that she feels a deep certainty that this move has God’s approval, even though it is decidedly unconventional. For a decision of this kind, she would most definitely pray and seek guidance; and the direction of that guidance is usually discerned through a sense of peace and certainty about a particular course.
My guess is that Palin is less politically calculating than willing to take an unconventional risk on faith. I think we can take at face value her sports-analogy explanation of the proximate reason for thinking it might be a good idea, to remove the distraction she represents, right now, for Alaska’s administration. (The $2 million the state has had to spend on responding to the stream of spurious ethics charges against her looms much larger in Alaska’s budget than in California’s or Texas’s. Her concern about being over-covered by the political opposition’s defensive secondary is a valid one, in the smaller pond of Alaska politics.)
And I suspect we can assume that Palin really did, as she said in her announcement today, pray about this, and that she believes her decision has God’s approval. We can only wait and see how things will play out for Palin. Maybe she will sink like a rock into a swimming hole, and never be heard from again as a serious national contender.
Why did she choose the Friday before the July 4th weekend to make this announcement? My guess: she is at peace with it, didn’t want to put it off, and wanted to have a relaxing holiday weekend with her family – resignation announcement firmly behind her.
Update: Readers should enjoy another take on this offered by C.K. MacLeod at the Hot Air Greenroom today. He points out that just about the only reason for Palin to stay in office is to avoid having the resignation on her resumé.