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Sarah Palin lacks what the GOP needs most

The Republicans need a White House candidate with ideas, steadiness and the ability to unify. That's not Alaska's departing governor.

July 05, 2009|DOYLE McMANUS

Is Sarah Palin the answer the Republican Party is looking for?

Not likely. Palin's abrupt announcement that she's quitting as governor of Alaska may be part of a long-term strategy that leads to the Oval Office. But at the moment, it looks more like the impulsive act of a hot-headed politician who can't abide criticism -- poor attributes for anyone who hopes to run for president.

Take Palin at her word: She decided to quit because she didn't think she could get much done for Alaska in her remaining 18 months in office, beset as she was with ethics charges that never seemed to go away.

"My staff and I spend most of our day ... dealing with this stuff instead of progressing our state," she complained.

It's possible that Palin knows something we don't about "this stuff," and that's what spurred her to resign. But even if she doesn't, it's easy to see why being governor wasn't much fun anymore.

Palin's popularity in Alaska has sunk from 93% in 2007 to 54% in May, still a respectable rating but a huge drop.

She faced a tough fight for reelection in 2010. She had few strong allies among Republicans in the Alaska Legislature after alienating many with her headstrong style. She had few prospects of closing out her term on a wave of landmark achievements that would boost her as a national candidate.

And she had a few laurels to rest on. After two years in office, she had accomplished her three main goals: higher taxes on oil production, legislation authorizing a new natural gas pipeline, and ethics reform. The rest of her agenda -- a new budget, education reform and negotiations over the pipeline contract -- looked more difficult and less rewarding. Another year in the governor's office could merely have diminished her standing. She quit, in short, to cut her losses while she could still plausibly claim to be ahead.

She says she still wants to have national impact, and she promises to campaign for candidates around the country who share her ruggedly conservative views: "I'll work for and campaign for those proud to be American, and those who are inspired by our ideals and won't deride them."

She looks and sounds, well, like Sarah Palin, but she also looks and sounds like a politician who wants another turn on the national stage.

Palin's main asset, of course, is a base of fervent support among social conservatives who see her as fresh, exciting and embattled -- the people who responded to her resignation by sending contributions to her fundraising committee, SarahPAC.

The problem for Palin and her party is that she doesn't have what Republicans need most: an idea.

For the last half-century, the GOP has prided itself on being the "party of ideas," a coalition that constantly invented new ways to apply its basic principles -- smaller government, lower taxes and an assertive foreign policy -- to the nation's problems.

Under George W. Bush, the string of successful ideas ran out. In 2008, it was the Democrats of Barack Obama, not the GOP, who won by proposing a detailed agenda of new policies and new initiatives.

In Congress, a notably uncharismatic collection of Republican leaders continues to reaffirm the ancient tenets of their faith: Government spending is bad, and taxes should be reduced. But that won't add up to a winning national platform unless Obama turns out to be a miserable failure and voters reflexively turn the other way.

Hence the search by many Republicans for an attractive idea or two. In 2000, Bush won votes from independents and centrists by proclaiming himself a "compassionate conservative," a governor who reformed his state's education system even as he kept a close eye on the purse strings.

And Palin? A voter interested in her approach to national issues will look in vain for new ideas. Her 18-minute statement on Friday introduced a new aphorism to American politics: "Only dead fish go with the flow." But it offered no priorities for Alaska or the nation beyond a handful of broad-brush goals: "Energy independence and smaller government and national security and freedom."

In her 2008 vice presidential campaign and since, she has been a champion not so much of ideas as of attitudes: anger at the national media, fear of a "big-government takeover," and the charge that unnamed liberals (presumably including Barack and Michelle Obama) "deride" American ideals. Those aren't ideas; they're slogans.

Palin may have the recipe for winning the hearts of the 37% of Americans who describe themselves as conservatives, but it won't attract votes from the 38% who call themselves moderates -- and who remain the key to any presidential election.

Which brings us to Palin's second flaw as a national candidate: She's a polarizer, not a unifier.

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