Why Sarah Palin Quit as Governor

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Robert DeBerry / The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman / AP

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announces on July 3, 2009, that she will step down

Correction Appended

In bowing out as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin harked back to her high school–basketball days — although there was no sign of the "Barracuda," as she was nicknamed for her ability to cut through the opposing team's offenses. In a hastily called press conference on the eve of a three-day holiday, Palin presented herself as a point guard exhausted by the "full-court press from the national level." The 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee explained how the metaphorical point guard should respond. "She drives through a full-court press, protecting the ball, keeping her head up because she needs to keep her eye on the basket, and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win," Palin said. "And I know when it's time to pass the ball for victory." Or take a timeout, as the case may be.

Palin's stunning announcement raised more questions than it answered: Is she bowing out of public life? Is there a more nefarious reason for her resignation after only 2½ years in office — yet another GOP scandal in the offing? Or is the woman who tops most GOP 2012 short lists to challenge Barack Obama stepping down to get a head start on her next presidential campaign? Palin took no questions after her unscripted, rambling address, and her comments seemed to hint both ways: that she's "passing the ball" of elected office and that she plans to work for all Americans, not just Alaskans. "Some are going to question the timing of this, and let me just say that this decision has been in the works for a while. In fact, this decision comes after much consideration," Palin said, holding up her left index finger as she amended her thought. "Much prayer and consideration. And finally, I polled the most important people in my life, my kids. And the count was unanimous. While in response to asking, 'Hey, do you want me to be a positive influence and fight for all our children's futures from outside the governor's office?' it was four yeses and one 'Hell, yeah.' The 'Hell, yeah' sold it."

If her goal is to position herself for higher office, the stagecraft and timing of her announcement left Republicans scratching their heads. The Friday before Independence Day, when media attention is at its lowest, would be a more appropriate moment for a scandal-plagued politician to slink from the national stage. Palin made the announcement with no fanfare, no teleprompters, no prepared remarks. Waterfowl in the background at times challenged her for the microphone. "To step down on a Friday before a three-day holiday, people are going to scrutinize it: why is she doing it, question her judgment," said Ed Rollins, who ran former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign last year. "It leaves her with less than three years as governor on her résumé — not a very strong argument to run for President. The way she did it — the fact she did it — damages her, damages her immensely. People aren't happy about a governor quitting, unless you're Governor [Mark] Sanford [currently under fire for his extramarital affair in Argentina]. Her doing this adds to the Sarah Palin mystique, but not in a good way."

Palin has had a rough 2009 thus far, drawing headlines often more suitable for Britney Spears than for a serious politician and gracing the covers of more tabloids than newsmagazines. She's picked heated public battles with Levi Johnston, the father of her teenage daughter's baby, and with late-night comedian David Letterman for crossing the line in mocking her daughter's sex life. In the past week, she's been eviscerated in a Vanity Fair article that has reduced the Republican Party to two camps, Palin supporters and detractors, who slug it out on the cable shows. She's also rankled Republican insiders by accepting two high-profile speaking engagements and then bailing out. And she twice bolted a congressional dinner before finally agreeing to appear, but declining to speak. Such fickle behavior has not endeared her to many party stalwarts, and her name is consistently left off the list when reporters ask the likes of John McCain and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush for ideas on who could be the next leader of the party.

Perhaps because of these missteps, many GOP advisers have urged Palin to keep a low profile, follow the Ronald Reagan trajectory by studying up on the issues, maybe do a listening tour and spend time building relationships behind the scenes. After finishing his term as governor of California, Reagan spent four years traveling the country, speaking to groups and building support, says Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum. Palin "certainly is the most sought-after speaker on the Republican side at this time. She draws big crowds; anywhere she goes, she's a star. I hope she'll continue that. We need good speakers," Schlafly said in a phone interview. "It's what Reagan did to great success."

But by quitting her governorship, Palin relinquishes her best platform. "I wouldn't call this a strategy," said John Weaver, a former top adviser to McCain. "This makes no sense. The way for her to increase her chances in 2012 is to be re-elected in 2010." Weaver cited the difficulties faced by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2008 when he competed against politicians still in office, adding, "A good point guard doesn't quit."

"This is classic Sarah Palin, the mixture of the personal and political," says Michael Carey, an Anchorage talk-show host. "It's all done ad hoc. There's no strategic plan. It's 'This is what I'm going to do, baby. Here we go,' " Carey said in a phone interview. A Washington friend with whom Palin spoke Friday morning said the soon-to-be ex-governor of Alaska doesn't have a concrete plan but she intends to work on her book — bought by HarperCollins in May — and help Republican candidates. The friend also said Palin, who will step down July 25, had become increasingly unhappy with the media scrutiny, her battles with the state legislature, the 15 ethics complaints filed against her by outside progressive groups and politics as a whole.

Palin's announcement caps a miserable few weeks for the Republican Party. Senator John Ensign, often mentioned as a potential 2012 candidate, resigned his leadership position after admitting to an affair. His resignation was followed the next week by Sanford's admission of several indiscretions. "The way we are going, if you are the Junior Jaycees president in Memphis, you could be in line for the nomination," quipped Weaver. Indeed, many in the GOP must now be wondering whether being on the party's 2012 short list is a blessing or a curse.

With reporting by Michael Scherer and Karen Tumulty in Washington and Mark Halperin in New York

The original version of this story mistakenly identified the end of Palin's gubernatorial term.