Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks to supporters in Fairbanks before signing a gun rights bill Friday.
Their harsh views conflict with those of grass-roots GOP voters, revealing a serious split within the party.
By Mark Z. Barabak
July 13, 2009
Since announcing her resignation, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been pummeled by critics who have called her incoherent, a quitter, a joke and a "political train wreck."
And those were fellow Republicans talking.
Palin has been a polarizing figure from the moment she stepped off the tundra into the bright lights last summer as John McCain's surprise vice presidential running mate. Some of that hostility could be expected, given the hyper-partisanship of today's politics.
What is remarkable is the contempt Palin has engendered within her own party and the fact that so many of her GOP detractors are willing, even eager, to express it publicly -- even with Palin an early front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Some admit their preference that she stay in Alaska and forget about any national ambitions.
"I am of the strong opinion that, at present day, she is not ready to be the leading voice of the GOP," said Todd Harris, a party strategist who likened Palin to the hopelessly dated "Miami Vice" -- something once cool that people regard years later with puzzlement and laughter. "It's not even that she hasn't paid her dues. I personally don't think she's ready to be commander in chief."
Others suggest a delayed response to last year's shaky campaign performance, now that the race is over and Republicans feel free to speak their minds.
"I can't tell you one thing she brought to the ticket," said Stuart K. Spencer, who has been advising GOP candidates for more than 40 years. "McCain wanted to shock and surprise people, and he did -- in a bad way."
It is more than cruel sport, this picking apart of Alaska's departing chief executive. The sniping reflects a serious split within the Republican Party between its professional ranks and some of its most ardent followers, which threatens not only to undermine Palin's White House ambitions -- if, indeed, she harbors them -- but to complicate the party's search for a way back to power in Washington.
Consider a USA Today/Gallup poll released last week. About 7 in 10 Republicans said they would be likely to vote for Palin if she ran for president. Other surveys place Palin in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, the former governors of Massachusetts and Arkansas, respectively, who sought the White House in 2008 and give every indication that they will try again in 2012.
Although any presidential poll taken this far out has to be taken with a sea's worth of salt, that is not the reason so many Republican strategists and party insiders dismiss Palin.
"People at the grass roots see a charismatic personality who is popular with other people at the grass roots. But their horizon only goes so far as people who think like them," said Mike Murphy. The veteran GOP ad man eviscerated Palin -- a "political train wreck," "an awful choice" for vice president, her resignation an "astonishing self-immolation" -- in a column published Thursday in the New York Daily News.
"Professional operatives keep their eye on a broader horizon and understand, without independents and swing voters, she can't win," Murphy said. "She's a stone-cold loser in a general election."
That, of course, is debatable and subject to any number of developments over the next few years. A Palin spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview Sunday in the Washington Times, Palin said she planned to write a book and campaign for candidates nationwide, regardless of party affiliation, who shared her views on limited government, national defense and energy independence.
But the reaction to her resignation from Republican candidates around the country has been telling. Asked if they planned to invite Palin to visit and campaign on their behalf, several of those facing tough races -- the ones who need to do more than turn out the party faithful or collect their contributions -- were not rushing out the welcome mat.
"I don't generally need people from outside my district to do a fundraiser," Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Republican from the Democratic-leaning suburbs of northern Virginia, told the Hill newspaper.
"There's others that I would have come in and campaign, and most of them would be my colleagues in the House," Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said in the same piece.
Whatever one thinks of Palin, there is no question she has been subjected to a level of internal sniping -- friendly fire seems like a misnomer -- that is extraordinary.
The Republican criticism of Palin, 45, began during McCain's presidential run, privately at first, then breaking into the open during the last troubled days of the Arizona senator's campaign. Finger-pointing and back-stabbing are hardly unusual in politics, especially on the losing side. But like so many things Palin-related -- the crowds, the adoration, the antipathy -- the verbal strafing seems of a whole other magnitude. (How many other losing vice presidential candidates would merit a 10,000-word exegesis in Vanity Fair, which depicted Alaska's governor as a narcissistic, one-woman demolition derby?)
Some blame sexism, though again there is sharp disagreement between Palin's supporters and detractors. Some think the former beauty queen has always been hurt by her looks, whereas others think her appearance has helped her considerably. "If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?" Murphy asked.
Others see a knee-jerk reaction from the political establishment, which will always frown on any populist outsider (think Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean), much less a governor who quits midterm and shows up on TV in hip waders.
"The fact that she is a woman who's extremely attractive and dynamic and charismatic throws them for a loop," said Bay Buchanan, who strategized for her brother's two insurgent presidential campaigns. "Once they sense the first little sign of weakness, that's when they go in for the kill."
No one knows where the future will take Palin, not even the governor herself. Her reemergence on the national scene and the scathing response from so many of her party peers underscore one thing, however: Republicans may hold dear their memories of the late Ronald Reagan. But his famous 11th commandment -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" -- was laid to rest a long time ago.