What Palin's Really Up To. (Hint: She Wants To Fight.)

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Assuming there is no scandal shoe about to drop, to understand what Gov. Sarah Palin is doing, we ought to begin by taking her at her word. I readily admit that her statement today wasn't terribly clear, which is quite telling itself: she doesn't quite know why she is doing what she's doing, ALL CAPS notwithstanding. She can't explain it to herself, and so she certainly can't explain it to others. But it's not that complicated to get the gist: she's "not retreating," she's advancing.  Palin, in Alaska, is a sitting duck for the people and forces she believes are ruining the country. She can't fight back -- she can't protect her family, her values, her worldview -- while she's governor.  At the same time, her desire, perhaps conscious, perhaps not,  to get into the mix -- to be invited to the fancy Washington dinners, to be courted by these very forces -- is irresistably pulling her towards the very fight she seeks. 

 

Don't make the mistake of assuming that Palin has a grand strategy that relies on subterfuge, prestidigitation or rhetorical concealment. She has few close advisers, and she is prone to ignore their advice. She keeps her own counsel. She believes what she says (and implies): that she is a national political figure, that her destiny (and I think she capitalizes the D) is in the continental 48, that her personal characteristics are mocked by the elite because the elite cannot understand them, that her family and children are subject to relentless, negative and highly damaging personal attacks, and that there is no longer a place for her in the Alaska government.

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The Vanity Fair profile and the Politico e-mails had nothing to do with her decision today. A simple Google News search will provide a better explanation. All those interviews: Palin, Levi, the baby; all the legislative blowback when she returned to Alaska after the campaign; all the adulation (and attention) she received when she took time away from her day job and stepped into her celebu-Sarah persona. Whether you believe that Palin is complicit in the exploitation of her family or not, you cannot help but believe that she means what she says she feels.


As a governor, she is ineffective; the moment she decides not to run for re-election, she had two choices: either untether herself from political customs and be the governor who spoke truth to power, or surrender to the whims of a legislature and governing apparatus that really grew to - not just dislike her, but hate her. Both options, she must have realized, are entirely untenable. Her relationship with Democrats and Republicans was irritable on good days, and her attempts to straighten her back and yell drew derisive laughter. For someone who has dipped a leg or two into the whirlpool of national politics, the contrast must be scalding. People who know Palin say that she cannot wait to - really wants to - play the role that she believes she now must play.

An ambitious, talented, ordinary American with an ordinary American's quirkiness and foibles was thrust into the spotlight (and with no small amount of thrusting forward on her part) and found that the real world confirmed in so many ways the beliefs she harbored about the elite and the moneyed class and the cultural cognoscenti.

She's in luck. The cultural and polite elite cannot stand Sarah Palin. In their view, her personal style grates; her intellect is sub-par; she is a walking mockery-making machine; she is suspicious, ignorant, oblivious, dishonest and dangerously casual with the facts. The elites v. Sarah Palin is just the latest incarnation in the great American culture war, and Palin no longer wants to fight with one hand tied behind her back. She will do so, ironically, from comfortable places. There are hundreds and thousands of conservative activists who see her as the embodiment of something worth embodying, who bonded with her when she was first subjected to the scorn, and who are confused and angry about the world in Barack Obama's hands. Whether she runs for president or not, this crowd likes her; it makes her comfortable; it accepts her family, and it is where she wants to be.

 

With a few exceptions, almost every Republican I talk to in Washington quakes at the thought of her being their presidential nominee in 2012 (although a few wonder slyly if she'll go away if she's offered up as a sacrifice that year.)


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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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