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Jeanne Devon (AKMuckraker) Headshot

Why the 'Tragedy' of Sarah Palin Isn't Really a Tragedy

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SARAH PALIN
AP

From the moment Sarah Palin's acceptance speech electrified the Republican convention, she was seen as an unbending, hard-charging, red-meat ideologue--to which soon was added "thin-skinned" and "vindictive." But a look at what Palin did while in office in Alaska--the only record she has--shows a very different politician: one who worked with Democrats to tame Big Oil and solve the great problem at the heart of the state's politics. That Sarah Palin might have set the nation on a different course. What went wrong?

This is the intriguing premise set forth by Joshua Green from the Atlantic, and prefaces a four-page article with information gathered during a week-long stay in Alaska. The article titled "The Tragedy of Sarah Palin" was fascinating, and made some valid points, but it reminded me of another story:

Three blindfolded men were led one at a time into a room containing an elephant. Each was asked to determine what was in the room without removing his blindfold. The first man touched the elephant's trunk, and concluded a snake was in the room. The second felt its leg and determined it was a tree. The third man found the tail and said the object was a rope. All three were stunned when they removed their blindfolds to find that the object was indeed an elephant. With "The Tragedy of Sarah Palin," it's as though Joshua Green went to Alaska with a blindfold, felt the leg, the trunk, and the tail and decided that the object was a tree from which hung a rope and a snake.

His query "What went wrong?" is a false question.

But let's start with what he got right. Green rightly notes that her home state is conspicuously devoid of Sarahphernalia -- T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items which Outsiders might expect to find sporting Palin's visage and populating the shelves of gift shops in the state's capital. I remember during the 2008 election cycle when even the local version of Whole Foods had racks of "Our Mama Beats Your Obama" shirts, and "Coldest State, Hottest Governor" slogans were everywhere. Green did find a roll of Sarah Palin toilet paper in Juneau, though. He's right - we are very much over her.

One cause of the 49th state's newly icy relationship with our ex-governor that cannot be overestimated is simply this - she quit. Quitters don't make it far in the frontier, and Alaskans lose respect quickly for those who flee when the going gets tough. Surviving discomfort and hardship and risk is a badge of honor here. It's practically the price of admission. We are the home of the bootstraps by which we tell everyone to pull themselves up. Alaskans don't like a whiner, and we don't like a quitter. Case closed.

That said, there's no doubt that Palin won the day in the Pre-Quitting era. Her high approval ratings, image as a reformer, and willingness to challenge her own party did much to boost the nation's initial impression of her. Her record in Alaska seemed to show her challenging authority, cleaning up corruption, implementing legislation with the help of Democrats, and getting our fair share of taxes from the oil companies that extract Alaska's socialist state-owned oil from the ground. Not bad, right? Then, the story goes, she hit the big time and it all changed. Suddenly our hometown girl started hurling accusations of pallin' around with terrorists, dissing community organizers, using divisive attack-dog language against Barack Obama. Like Napoleon, she put the laurel wreath upon her own head and crowned herself Miss Tea Party USA.

So, what went wrong? Here's why it's a false question.

The narrative above presumes one important thing -- that Sarah Palin changed. She changed from a measured, reasonable bi-partisan reformer who did her state a lot of good, to a shrieking hatemonger of right-wing rhetoric and partisan hackery. At first glance, it seems true on its face, and we wonder how she went from one thing to something quite different. It's a mystery.

In science, there is a principle called Occam's Razor, which posits that all other things being equal, the simpler answer is usually the correct one. So, is there a simpler answer to Green's question than that some inexplicable change happened -- some tragic occurrence -- that turned Sarah Palin from her Alaska self into the very different national figure of today? Yes, there is.

Scratch the surface and look at the person underneath the public image, and another landscape reveals itself -- one that is actually quite consistent. Sarah Palin was not a reformer at her core, who found a way to fulfill this abiding need, and self-actualization through a career in politics. She was not a person whose core values of bringing people together in a spirit of harmony for the greater good led her to extend her hand across the aisle to embrace Democrats. She was not an energy expert who used her unique, comprehensive knowledge and skill to earn her state back the money that had been robbed from us by Big Oil. She is not a hardcore ideologue who will fall on her sword for her beliefs no matter the personal cost. Nor is she a hateful partisan hack who revels in stirring the pot and watching the carnage simply for its own sake.

But there is one thing that she is, that explains all of this and allows these seemingly incongruous traits to coexist in the same narrative, without the contradictions that seem so irreconcilable on their face. Ready?

Sarah Palin is an opportunist. It's the simplest answer.

Palin the Reformer

When Palin first seriously set foot in the arena of state-wide politics, Alaskans were reeling from the flagrant corruption and carnal relationship between Big Oil and the governor's office. Her gubernatorial predecessor, Frank Murkowski was so committed to oil, he may as well have been pouring the stuff on his cornflakes in the morning. A group of Republican legislators on the take who proudly dubbed themselves "The Corrupt Bastards Club" were investigated and charged by the FBI for selling political favors to the oil companies in the halls of the capitol. Those legislators went to trial and jail, one after the other. People in Alaska were sporting "Thanks FBI" and "Anyone but Frank" bumper stickers.

It was a horrible, humiliating time for Alaskans -- particularly the Republican ones whose representatives were ending up behind bars. So what might Alaskans have been craving in a politician at that time? What characteristic above all others would elicit cheers and flowers and adulation? What would a politician need to assure a stratospheric rise to the top? A reformer.

Sarah Palin seemed to be just such a person. Out with the "good ol' boys network" and in with the gal from Wasilla ready to sweep the state clean. "Take a Stand" her signs read. She had used her position on the AOGCC (Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) to point out the corruption of her fellow member who also happened to be the chair of the Republican Party. Then, because of rules, which meant she couldn't bring the scandal enough into the limelight, she "quit in frustration." We wanted that to be true so badly that the virtually unknown Sarah Palin won her Republican gubernatorial primary leaving the incumbent with a staggeringly paltry 19% of the vote.

But the reality was that Palin was no energy expert. Her knowledge at the time of the oil and gas industry was so deficient that the legislature later passed a bill that was dubbed at the time the "No More Sarah Palin Bill." When Republican Representative Vic Kohring stated about the legislation that "it's critical all members of the Commission have a fundamental understanding of the industry they regulate, and this legislation helps accomplish that," it was quite clear to whom he was referring. He added that with the increased highly technical nature of the industry, it further underscores the need to have experienced and knowledgeable appointees on the Commission. When she quit that job, her "dramatic public gesture" as Green called it, was a golden opportunity to leave a commission upon which she was unqualified to serve, didn't enjoy, and to do so as the principled reformer who "took a stand." It was a win-win for Palin, and allowed her to create an image of exactly what Alaskans so desperately wanted. It worked for her.

Palin the Bipartisan

Green goes on to point out how Palin "worked with Democrats" to get new tougher oil legislation passed. There was no question that the PPT (Petroleum Profits Tax) favored by Murkowski did much to further line the pockets of the oil companies at the expense of the state and its people. Palin was elected as a reformer and (to her credit) picked an oil and gas team that was smart and savvy and had good ideas. Her dedication to them and unwavering support for their opinions had as much to do with her lack of knowledge on the subject, as her faith in them, but it worked. When it came time to make a proposal, she went to Republicans in the legislature first. But trying to be both a reformer and a Republican in the state of Alaska is a tricky business. After trying to tiptoe through that minefield, she quickly realized that Republicans (the ones deepest in the pockets of Big Oil) were going to give her nothing -- not the way to further a political career or look successful to those on the national scene who were already taking more than a passing glimpse at Palin.

So, Palin went to the only people left who could salvage her reformer image, and allow her to get something done -- the Democrats. Dems were willing to work with Palin, and fully realized that they held the cards. For Palin the choice became clear -- either become an ineffectual governor for whom "reform" was a nice thought only, or step up to the plate and salvage her image. The price to pay for Palin was that Dems insisted on making the bill tougher on oil, and better for the state. Palin, the opportunist, had little choice. Ultimately, the new, better, tougher Democratic bill passed and Palin won the day. It certainly wasn't because Palin went to Juneau and embraced legislators on both sides of the aisle out of an abiding desire for peace, harmony and reconciliation. It was because the Democrats wanted the legislation and got their own bill through by giving the self-serving opportunist an opportunity. They saved the image of a Republican governor because to them, good policy was more important than who got credit and as a result, they saved her butt.

It's no exaggeration to say that ACES has made the state one of the fiscally strongest in the union. Flush with cash, Alaska produced large capital budgets that blunted the effects of the recession. Moody's just upped the state's bond rating to AAA for the first time. While other states reel under staggering deficits, budget cuts, and protests, Alaska has built up a $12 billion surplus, most of it attributable to Palin's tax.

"Palin's tax" as Green calls it, was the Democrats' tax, and it has worked quite well. Since Palin left, Governor Sean Parnell (her former Lt. Governor who won reelection this past cycle) has changed course. ACES, which saves the state billions of dollars a year, has come under incessant attack from him and the Republicans in the legislature who now have an oily ally in the governor's office. Sarah Palin has been virtually silent on the matter of ACES, and dead quiet on the role her former Lt. Governor has played in systematically trying to undermine his former boss' achievement. It no longer serves her purposes. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been vigorously defending it and the interest of the people of the state of Alaska, just like they did in 2007. If Alaskans want more of what Palin took credit for doing, all they need to do is elect a progressive who serves a full term.

Palin the VP Nominee

When John McCain plucked Sarah Palin from obscurity, it wasn't because he needed a moderate, sensible running mate who could stick it to corporate power and snuggle up to Democrats. He needed someone to capitalize on the female vote, and someone who could speak the language of the evangelical Christian right. He needed someone to shore up the conservative base. For Palin, this was the opportunity of opportunities, and she was happy to dust off social conservative issues, chuck a few hapless souls under the bus, and throw some red meat into a campaign that was anything but exciting, if that's what it took. Those wedge issues weren't the things adding to her popularity as Alaska's governor, but suddenly they were critical to her success on the VP trail. There was nothing she could do about her woeful inadequacy in political knowledge, or grasp of history, or global affairs, and subsequently fell flat on her face in those arenas. But, boy could she put on a show and took that opportunity with both hands. Principles? Core values? Integrity? Whatever. Opportunity won the day.

Palin the Quitter

After the election, Palin found herself in an awkward spot. When she stepped on the national stage, nobody knew much about what she'd been doing in Alaska, but when she came back to Alaska we sure knew what she'd been up to on the national stage. The things that gave her the opportunity to obtain a measure of success in Alaska were thrown under the bus along with the Democrats who had handed her a victory with ACES. Key players in that legislation suddenly became haters conspiring with Barack Obama to keep her down. And the things that were better off unsaid in Alaska had been shrieked to the four corners of the country and couldn't be taken back. Suddenly her opportunistic nature became apparent to Alaskans, and it was a whole new ballgame on her home turf. She couldn't just step back to her former role, and as she did when on the AOGCC, she "quit in frustration." But this time, Alaskans weren't buying it.

Her claim that ethics complaints against her were all baseless and yet bankrupting the state simply wasn't true. Her own actions cost the state more money than anyone else. And a couple of those ethics complaints stuck like the very legality of her legal defense fund. After Palin's antics as governor, the Alaska legislature was forced to address a couple modern day "No More Sarah Palin" bills and court cases: Should the state pay for the governor's children's travel and lodgings at events? Should we pay the governor a per diem allowance when she is living in her own home? Should the governor be allowed to conduct state business from a personal Yahoo account the content of which is not subject to public scrutiny?

The truth is that Palin already had a book deal in the works that she knew could potentially make millions. A book tour and six-figure speaking engagements around the world presented a much more attractive opportunity than slogging it out in a state that didn't want her, in a job she hated and was ill-prepared to do well. Opportunity demanded that she shake the glacial dust off those red Naughty Monkey pumps and move on to greener pastures.

Palin the Petty

Green recognizes some of Palin's biggest hurdles in politics -- obsession with personal grievances, preoccupation with her own image, and an unending focus on petty issues. Throw incompetence and lack of qualification into the mix, and the portrait is fleshed out even more.

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.

This is Green's thought experiment. But the real question he's asking is -- what could Palin have achieved if she had a different personality, if she were not a political opportunist and had actual integrity, if she were qualified, if she knew her stuff, if she were an effective leader, if she knew how to manage people, if she were intellectually curious, if she didn't quit? The question Green asks is really what Sarah Palin might have achieved if she hadn't been Sarah Palin. And it's why "What went wrong?" is a false question. "What went wrong" was Palin being who she is -- consistently and predictably opportunistic. There are times when opportunity comes from doing the right thing, but there are times when opportunity comes from doing the wrong thing. It doesn't mean that Palin changed, it just means she was true to what drives her always -- her own self-interest.

Off all those quoted in the article, my favorite was former governor and Palin's Democratic opponent in 2006, Tony Knowles.

"She's what I call 'alley-cat smart,'" Tony Knowles, the former Democratic governor, told me. "It's not about ideology. She knows how to pick her way down the political route that she feels will be the most beneficial to what she wants to do."

Yes, Tony Knowles and Occam's Razor -- the simplest answer is right.

Jeanne Devon is co-author with Ken Morris and Frank Bailey of the much-anticipated memoir "Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin" (Simon & Schuster/Howard Books) coming May 24, 2011.