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Analysis of Sarah Palin's strange move: Timeout or Flameout?

July 3, 2009 |  4:19 pm

Alaska Republican Governor Sarah Palin

First, a few political givens:

These are different, changing times in U.S. politics.

The last three presidents each emerged from nowhere and achieved the White House on their first bid, though Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each had governor’s terms and reelections under their belts.

But what had Barack Obama ever accomplished as a freshman senator before announcing and achieving his desire for promotion? (And not finishing his first term either.)

The emergence of social media and online networking have created a whole new political environment beneath traditional media radar with untapped and unknown opportunities for unconventional politicians.

Sarah Palin is just such an unconventional politician, with surprising upsets in her past, a down-to-earth manner so different from the tired old suits you’ll see jabbering on morning TV this Sunday. And she has an astounding approval rate among her conservative base.

Most expected Palin not to run next year for reelection, like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who now has the time and option to gear up for a 2012 presidential run.

Hardly anyone expected her to quit the governor’s office and turn it over to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell on July 26, despite Palin’s slipped popularity at home. (Full Palin text here.)

Professionals watching a withdrawal like this conventionally and immediately wonder, what bad news don't we know about her that's about to come out? Is there some scandal, indictment or personal revelation that would cause her to step down even before its announcement? Friday, especially a pre-holiday Friday, is usually a time to announce what you don't want heard much.

But here’s why friends say she’s really doing it:

Palin is genuinely sick of, as she calls it, “the crap” that comes with national politics, especially the....

... effect on her family, which is more important than many have realized until now. The recent Vanity Fair article with alleged John McCain advisers mercilessly, and anonymously, criticizing her was only one element. As was a recent Alaskan cartoon mocking her Down syndrome son. And the pornographic ones before, etc.

Few in American public life have generated such heat as Palin, both for and against. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to watch. She connects electrically in person with crowds like few others in recent years. Her name in a mere headline brought thousands to this blog a few hours ago. And TV knows her audience appeal. Curiosity too.

What she’s decided to do, as a former championship basketball player who sees the bipartisan opposition has gained momentum, is take a timeout, get out of the line of fire awhile, write her lucrative book, take care of her children, blog and travel a lot without the responsibilities of elective office. Free her family from scrutiny. And avoid any criticism for ignoring an official job in Anchorage and Juneau.

And see what happens.

Her new SARAHPac remains intact, however, and is still accepting donations to fund her travels. In doing so, she can refine her political style, learn more about more issues, become less naive, hopefully find savvier political advisors more loyal to her than themselves for a change, people accustomed to a larger national stage that she’s willing to trust.

And rebuild her image over the next few years. That’s the thinking. Unlikely perhaps, but not outrageous if a previous elected official can survive a scandal over oral sex in the Oval Office and lying about it.

Her departure now also gives her successor 16 months to be seen as an incumbent for the 2010 gubernatorial election he says he'll seek to win.

In one sense, in the world of national American politics this is all incredibly naive. For whatever reason -- including incalculable unfair criticism and stereotyped media coverage that would never ever be tolerated for a male officeholder – she’s in a huge hole, partly of her own making.

She’s made numerous mistakes, partly from inexperience, partly from poor strategic advice. While Mitt Romney goes quietly about the business of building up political owe-sies by campaigning tirelessly for others all over the country, building his contacts and allegiances out of sight and using his long experience to appear statesmanlike, Palin is publicly squabbling with the likes of a grumpy, fading late-night TV celebrity who made a rape joke about her daughter.

It’s so soap-operey. Those awful slings about looking like trailer trash wouldn’t be aimed at a male Gomer Pyle. But it comes with the turf. Hillary Clinton’s long experience with that thickened her skin.

Also, strategically, what has Palin done since the election? Gone home, worked hard, but been drawn into more soapy fights with the media over mis-portrayals, which can all be true, but few but the most devoted care. It seems to say more about her than her intended targets.

Last winter, Palin was invited to speak at the year’s top Washington GOP fundraising event as The Star in early June. She or her staff dawdled so long, the event organizers went instead to a recycled speaker of the House emerging from his own image rehab after an affair, etc.

When House Republicans asked her to speak at their retreat, Palin said she couldn’t. But showed up at that stupid Alfalfa Dinner the same weekend.

When CPAC, the premier annual national gathering of conservatives, invited her as a primary speaker last winter, she first accepted, then sent a video.

When she did emerge from Alaska, Palin dashed down to a right-to-life dinner in Indiana, spoke at a special needs breakfast the next morning and ran back home. To the legislature, to be sure. But a lot of travel for not much impact.

Her other big Lower 48 appearance was at an event ... where? Does anyone know? Auburn, N.Y. And then she ended up at the big GOP fundraiser in D.C. anyway. But only as a face in the crowd. The worst of both worlds.

Here’s what she could have done: Planned a week traveling to large media centers; met with Henry Kissinger and other party heavyweights again as part of her ongoing foreign affairs study; women’s groups; toured an energy facility in Texas with a fan, Gov. Rick Perry, and talked about what Alaska’s energy reserves could do for America.

Gone on a morning show or two; dismissed the tired, predictable host questions about last fall; talked about the future; and wrap up the week as the red carpet star attraction at a $14-million Republican fundraiser in Washington.

Conventional political wisdom in the U.S. big leagues is that the job of president doesn’t come looking for you. Which doesn’t mean she can’t go looking later. But right now the bright star of Sarah Palin has flown behind a nearby planet to perhaps learn more, generate grass-roots enthusiasm and rebrand herself out of office.

A bold move. Naive? Long odds based on recent history. What can she claim in 2011—I served 2.5 years as governor of Alaska and then quit?

On the other hand, in this political age, 60 months ago who’d have predicted a little-known state senator out of the Chicago political machine with a proclivity to vote “Present” would be a U.S. senator, let alone the White House occupant?

--Andrew Malcolm

No quitting here. The Ticket goes inside politics several times a day even on alleged holidays, as you can see. Click here for Twitter alerts of each new item. Or follow us    @latimestot

Photo: Associated Press

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