What Andrew Sullivan Doesn't Get About Palin

I'm glad Andrew Sullivan has responded to my Sarah Palin piece. You'd hate to write as much about her as I did and not have it register on the Dish. That would be like if you were a large white whale and Ahab just ignored you.


Andrew's response covers a lot of terrain, and I agree with his point that Alaska is essentially a socialist state, or more accurately, a ward of the federal government (for more on that, see this excellent Charles Homans piece in the Washington Monthly). In fact, its perverse tax structure is one reason why Alaska became such a corrupt mess--it levies no sales or income tax, and relies almost exclusively on oil taxes and royalties (plus the feds). So it's no wonder that the oil interests' political power grew to the point of corruption. But that wasn't Palin's doing--and she, more than anyone, fought against it. 

Andrew's other big gripe is, I'm afraid, a bit of a straw man woman. He suggests that I've presented Palin as being "deep down, a bipartisan progressive reformer, foiled by a cynical McCain campaign," some sort of pointy-headed wonk who'd "rather be discussing healthcare policy at the New America Foundation." (Heh.) Furthermore, I am "reckless" for not realizing that:

Palin is not and never was driven by policy but resentments... That oil tax was a way to get back at the Republicans she hated (and who had humiliated her), and to win power by a populist appeal, backed by a virulent Christianism - hostile to the moneyed elites of the GOP and unmentioned by Josh.

Actually, except for the "Christianism" stuff--Palin downplayed her social conservatism while running for and serving as governor, to the enduring frustration of her opponents--that's a pretty good summation of what I wrote. Oil policy was always a means to an end--political power--and Palin failed at the national level precisely because her resentments got the better of her. My words: 

A big part of the answer [to why she failed] is that the qualities that brought her original successes--the relentlessness, the impulse to settle scores--weren't nearly so admirable when deployed against less worthy foes than Murkowski and the oil companies...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 that last point that Palin's critics, Andrew included, either don't understand or insist on denying--that despite her thirst for power and myriad unsavory characteristics, she put them to good use in Alaska, and the state is better off for it. Politicians needn't be bland, saint-like figures to make effective reformers. Palin showed this in Alaska. Had she shown it in the 2008 campaign and afterward, she'd have been much better served, and so would the Republican Party. But she didn't, and has only herself to blame.

Even before embarking on this piece, I could never take seriously the notion of Palin as somehow being one of history's greatest monsters. As John Podhoretz pointed out yesterday, she lacks the necessary discipline to be a serious presidential candidate. To be a serious anything. Maybe that wasn't always clear. But it should be by now. I remember having a blog spat with Andrew a year or so ago, when the overheated fantasy most popular among Palin critics was that she'd run for president and communicate only through Facebook and Twitter, thereby outwitting us dupes in the national press corps, who would then be complicit in her terrifying reign. How ridiculous does that seem today? I'm all for honest appraisals of Palin and have delivered my own. It's always worth reading what her smartest critics have to say. But they'd be a lot more convincing if they'd adjust their worldview to match reality, ratchet down the threat level, and accept that her status is much diminished.

Update: Andrew has weighed in with a further thought, and an interesting one: that my piece may serve as balm to the right. I guess it might, although I wonder what effect, if any, that would have.  
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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