The political community's reaction to Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin's announcement that she would resign on July 26 was swift, withering and very nearly unanimous. It's hard to dispute that Palin handled the announcement badly, but was her decision to resign really crazy, or just unexpected, with the press reacting to an unorthodox move by declaring it insane?
First, look at the issue of not seeking re-election in 2010 and work back. A good case can be made that seeking a presidential nomination has become an extraordinarily difficult undertaking in terms of organization-building, fundraising and cultivating the relationships necessary to win. And perhaps doing that well and being an effective governor are mutually exclusive.
Would Palin really get that many more "experience points" for sticking around Juneau, if it meant missing a lot of gripping and grinning at Lincoln Day dinners and other state and local party functions?
Since Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 as governor of Arkansas and George W. Bush won the GOP nomination in 2000 as governor of Texas, the magnitude of building a winning presidential campaign has become greater. Running for president is now a minimum two-year, full-time job. While a senator can pretty much skip out on the job for two years, governors can't do that without exposing themselves to doing at least one task badly, if not both. Plus, running while governing from Austin or Little Rock is one thing -- running from Juneau is quite something else.
So assuming Palin would not seek re-election in 2010, what value would she get from spending the next 18 months as a lame-duck governor, having to contend with a recalcitrant state legislature that already has shown little interest in making her look good, while trying to lay the groundwork for a national campaign?
She has already punched her ticket as governor; would she really get that many more "experience points" for sticking around Juneau, if it meant missing a lot of gripping and grinning at Lincoln Day dinners and other state and local party functions, or headlining fundraising events for Republican candidates?
The ugly sausage-making aspect of governing, particularly during difficult economic times, was going to afford her few opportunities to look good, but plenty of headaches, over the next 18 months. Why do it? Why not take a bit of grief for bailing out early and get a head start on 2012?
Finally, it appears that Sarah and Todd Palin are not people of great wealth, and it's a decent bet that they would have little income during 2011 and 2012, with the two of them campaigning full time. My hunch is that -- to the extent that she could bank some serious change over the next year and a half by speaking, writing a book or what have you -- it would make their lives easier in 2011 and 2012.
In short, Palin's decision to step down earlier seems totally reasonable, even if badly executed. The widespread negative reaction among the political press seems to be a combination of shock that a presidential contender was doing something outside the box (she actually gives up power -- how extraordinary! -- and puts all her chips on a presidential bid earlier than they are accustomed to), and a disdain that many in the press have for her and anything she does -- as she reciprocally seems to have for them.
There's no question that there are some fascinating dynamics at work in this embryonic presidential nomination contest. In just a few weeks, scandals have likely ended the presidential ambitions of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign from Nevada. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's decision to accept President Obama's offer to be ambassador to China has taken another interesting possibility out of contention.
That leaves Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia jostling for position.
For Huckabee, what better way to bond with Republican primary voters than to get a regular talk show on Fox News? The former governor encountered resistance among GOP voters in 2007 and 2008, even after he won the Iowa caucuses, but he seems to be improving his standing with them.
Romney can certainly be faulted for his schizophrenic 2008 campaign, running first as a world-class manager with a keen, analytical mind and then shifting to portray himself as the most conservative Republican in the race -- a rather extraordinary transition for a former governor of the People's Republic of Massachusetts. But clearly he is bright and talented, with ample personal wealth and organizational ability; together they make him arguably the early favorite.
Gingrich certainly has high name recognition and tons of novel ideas, many good. And I can attest that he is one of the most interesting people you could ever sit down and have a drink with. But the question is whether he has too much baggage to convince his party that he is electable.
Who else? Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has already announced he is not seeking re-election in 2010, is a good bet to run. Increasingly, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and South Dakota Sen. John Thune are mentioned as potential contenders.
The bottom line is that Palin, who was a relative nobody in the party one year ago, has little time to waste putting together a 50-state effort. This move gives her an additional year and a half to do it.