Two Sides to Sarah Palin

by Vince

Joshua Green has a great piece out in this months issue of The Atlantic on the two sides to Sarah Palin. He breaks it down into two general categories: her time as a reformist in Alaska and then everything after her VP-acceptance speech at the Republican National convention. I will highlight some points, but it is worth a full read.

Throughout most of its history as a territory and, after 1959, as a state, Alaska was a tenuous proposition, a barren outpost rich in resources yet congenitally poor because the outside interests that extracted them didn’t leave much behind. The main obstacle to statehood was convincing Congress that Alaska wouldn’t immediately go bust. It still relies heavily on aid from Washington, and that, combined with the federal government’s holding title to 60 percent of its land base (the state itself holds 28 percent more), generates a robust resentment of federal power. The colonial mind-set is reinforced by the intensity of the state’s politics, a common attribute of remote settlements like Alaska, as the historian Ken Coates has noted—think Lord of the Flies.

Irony, isn’t it? Next, her political traits that evolved as she left Alaska:

…she displayed all the traits that would become famous: the intense personalization of politics, the hyper-aggressive score-settling—and the dramatic public gesture, which came next.

This score-settling style evolved, in my eyes, from easy enemies (corrupt Republicans in Alaska) to national figures (Barack Obama, et al).

Next, to put some perspective on how Alaska is politically:

Alaska’s parties align differently from parties elsewhere—they’re further to the right and principally concerned with resource extraction. The major philosophical divide, especially on oil and gas, is between those who view the state as beholden to the oil companies for its livelihood, and will grant them almost anything to ensure that livelihood, and those who view its position as being like the owner of a public corporation for whom the oil companies’ interests are separate from and subordinate to those of its citizen-shareholders. “Oil and gas cuts a swath right through ordinary partisan politics,” Patrick Galvin, Palin’s revenue commissioner, told me.

Now, for the reformist in her, she created ACES (Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share), a tax-base program that helped bring Alaska to a comfy $12 billion surplus, as well as enacted other moderate measures:

At first, her team tried to win the Republicans over. But it became clear this wasn’t going to happen. So Palin did something that would be hard to imagine from her today: she pivoted to the Democrats. “We sat down with her and said, ‘If you want to get something passed, it’ll have to be much stronger,’” Les Gara, a liberal House member, told me. “And to give her credit, she did what she needed to get a bill passed.”

In the end, Palin essentially grafted the Democrats’ proposal onto her own. What she signed into law went well beyond her original proposal: ACES imposes a higher base tax rate than its predecessor on oil profits. But the really significant part has been that the tax rate rises much sooner and more steeply as oil prices climb—the part Democrats pushed for. The tax is assessed monthly, rather than annually, to better capture price spikes, of which there have been many. ACES also makes it harder for companies to claim tax credits for cleaning up spills caused by their own negligence, as some had done under the old regime.

She kept herself focused, too: though priding herself on her well-advertised social conservatism, she was prepared to set it aside when necessary. Rather than pick big fights about social issues, she declined to take up two abortion-restriction measures that she favored, and vetoed a bill banning benefits for same-sex partners of state workers.


Her personality traits, as mentioned, went national and marred her image. Some of this traces back to one of her former aides, Frank Bailey:

Palin obsessed over her image, even more than most politicians. According to Bailey, she orchestrated a campaign to inundate newspapers with phony letters praising her. This evidently became a favored tactic. Bailey even includes a letter he says she wrote under another name accusing an opponent, John Binkley, of copying her Web-site design. (Excerpt: “This may not seem like such a big deal, but not having an original idea and taking credit for someone else’s work gives us a clue of how Johne [sic] works.”) In the idiom of the Web, Palin was a troll.

Much of this was harmless (if also pointless) and would not have undermined her political career. Politicians from Nixon to Clinton have been similarly consumed and still flourished. But Palin also committed more-serious ethical breaches. The most notorious of these involved her attempts to get her former brother-in-law, a state trooper, fired, and included Palin’s removal of the trooper’s boss when he didn’t comply with her wish. An investigation by the legislature found that, in some of her actions, she had abused her powers.

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.

“The thing that strikes me again and again is that she was so single-minded when she got here,” Gregg Erickson, a former senior state economist and co-founder of the Alaska Budget Report, an influential political newsletter, told me. “The problem with amateurs in politics is that they often lack that focus. She had it. She was terrible at running a staff, and given that, it’s amazing she was successful. But on the issues she made the focus of her administration—the oil tax and the gas line—she had good staff, listened to them, and backed them up. She was a transformative governor, no question. If it hadn’t been for her stunning ability to confuse personal interests and her role as governor, she could have gone on to be tremendously successful.”

With all of this past her, below is what most of America in the lower 48 only know when they think of Sarah Palin:

Palin’s old colleagues were stunned. “The speech at the Republican convention that made her a star, that was just shocking,” French told me. “She could have said, ‘I’ll do for the nation what I did for Alaska: I’ll work with both sides and won’t care where the ideas come from.’ Her background supported that. Instead, they handed her a red-meat script she’s been reading from ever since.”

But all of that is overshadowed by the full-throated assault on Barack Obama, rooted in deep cultural resentment, that became the campaign’s ethos and remains Palin’s identity. What resonate are her charges that Obama wanted to “forfeit” the war in Iraq and that he condescended to “working people” with talk of “how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns.”

That didn’t carry her to Washington, but it did reshape the contours of American politics. Today, there aren’t many Republicans of the type Palin was in Alaska; but nearly every Republican seeking the White House strives to evoke the more grievance-driven themes of her convention speech. Regardless of whether she runs too, her influence will be more broadly and deeply felt than anyone else’s. But it’s hard to believe that her party, or her country, or even Palin herself, is better off for that.

Palin might have been the torchbearer of reform, a role that would have come naturally. Everything about her—the aggressiveness, the gift for articulating resentments, her record and even her old allies in Alaska—would once more have been channeled against a foe worth pursuing. Palin, not Obama, might ultimately have come to represent “Change We Can Believe In.” What had he done that could possibly compare with how she had faced down special interests in Alaska?

A final note on Palin, or a wake-up call to the GOP:

Palin’s achievement was to pull Alaska out of a dire, corrupt, enduring systemic crisis and return it to fiscal health and prosperity when many people believed that such a thing was impossible. She did this not by hewing to any ideological extreme but by setting a pragmatic course, applying a rigorous practicality to a set of problems that had seemed impervious to solution. She challenged supposedly inviolable political precepts, and embraced more-nuanced realities: Republicans sometimes must confront powerful business interests; to govern effectively, you have to cooperate with the other side; you sometimes must raise taxes to balance a budget; and doing these things can actually enhance rather than destroy your career, whatever anybody says. True reform—not pandering to the base—established Palin’s broad popularity in Alaska.

In the end, Alaskan Palin seems to me to be a decent candidate and much less polarizing. Then again, she might be better fit for smaller market gubernatorial seats that don’t attract as much attention when her normal craziness occurs.

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