Sarah Palin: Republican version of Greg Oden or Ryan Leaf

by Brendan Monaghan

Her selection from relative obscurity was met with the same speculation, mixed with glee, as a high draft choice in professional sports.

“With the second pick in the 2008 Vice Presidential Draft, the McCain campaign selects . . . Sarah Palin, Governor of the State of Alaska.”

The prognosticators and analysts immediately went to work, sizing up the choice and assessing her Tremendous Upside Potential. The historic nature of his pick- the first woman on a Republican ticket- would bring relevance back to a sinking campaign, and her conservative credentials would rejuvenate the decidedly unenthusiastic base. Timing was also on their side, stealing thunder and headlines from Dear Leader’s Anointment From On Mile High that same week.

Palin’s impact on the campaign was demonstrable and immediate. She electrified Republicans gathering at the Convention in St. Paul and watching on television. She brought genuine enthusiasm and high hopes to an otherwise hapless, doomed campaign. She turned a certain defeat in to a fighting chance to win. Had Wall Street not collapsed a month after her selection, things might have been different. Even in defeat- marked by a few rookie mistakes- Sarah Palin still had the makings of a long and influential political career.

How, then, did we get to this point? How did she become the Republicans’ version of a Greg Oden or a Ryan Leaf? Wednesday marked the official, ignoble end of Sarah Palin’s political career, one that never lived up to its potential or met expectations. She snuffed out speculation of a 2012 presidential campaign, one met with varied reaction among most Republicans: from sighs and groans to “Oh God, anybody but her!” Indeed, the statistical evidence backed up the anecdotal, with as many as three-fifths of Republicans polled stating quite clearly they did not want her to run. Her negatives among moderates and independents- so crucial for any hope of gaining the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue- were much, much worse.

The short explanation for how Sarah Palin’s would-be long journey through Republican politics careened so disastrously off course could be summed up thusly: she had every opportunity in the world to force Americans to take her seriously but squandered them all. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to be thrust in to the spotlight she clearly craved but certainly couldn’t handle. Palin could have run for re-election as Governor and bided her time and built up a war chest for a national campaign somewhere down the road. She could have run for Congress last year and taken out the unspeakably corrupt pork-barrel good ol’ boy, Don Young. She- and not Joe Miller- could have challenged Alaska’s incumbent Senator in the Republican primary, giving her Washington experience and issue specialization, not to mention another helmet sticker at the expense of the Murkowski dynasty.

Instead, late in her first term, she chose to quit entirely: opt against re-election, resign that day, and play the victim. She argued she was doing Alaska- and her family- a favor by sparing them from ethics investigations from her enemies. Unlike Teflon Republicans from ages past, she argued she couldn’t do her job effectively and fight legal battles against her at the same time. She opted instead for fame and fortune over sacrifice and service, punditry over political office. When Fox News failed to raise her profile to sufficient heights, she turned to reality television. Richard Nixon appeared on Laugh-in, Bill Clinton played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, John McCain hosted Saturday Night Live. Sarah Palin appeared in a sweeps episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” with Kate Gosselin Plus 8.

One can’t help but be curious what her presidential chances might have been if she had decided to stay in office in Alaska instead of becoming famous for being famous. If she tried to emulate Ronald Reagan more than Kim Kardashian. If she had actually put forth a serious effort at the nomination instead of refueling her “will she, won’t she” persona by parachuting in to Republican gatherings unannounced and uninvited. If she had come to a decision far sooner than the last minute instead of stringing us all along and repeatedly ignoring (or just plum forgetting about) self-imposed deadlines. Palin’s legacy will be a disappointment for many Republicans who had long been hoping for a strong, credible, articulate conservative woman- an American Margaret Thatcher- who could shatter stereotypes along with the glass ceiling. Hers will be that of a “could have been” or a “never was” instead of a has been. Above all, a great and wasted talent.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.