What Went Wrong With Sarah Palin?

Once upon a time, Sarah Palin was a genuinely effective, bipartisan legislator. No, really.

Joshua Green spent a week in Alaska for the Atlantic, and surveying that much-picked-over territory for what Palin did before her overnight national introduction, finds much to praise. "As governor, Palin demonstrated many of the qualities we expect in our best leaders," he writes. She set aside private concerns for the greater good, forgoing a focus on social issues to confront the great problem plaguing Alaska, its corrupt oil-and-gas politics. She did this in a way that seems wildly out of character today—by cooperating with Democrats and moderate Republicans to raise taxes on Big Business."

He describes how, amid widespread corruption and her own party's fealty to corporate oil interests, Palin seized the opportunity to pass a sweeping oil tax by getting the Democrats on board, requiring some compromise. The resulting tax, Green says, "has made the state one of the fiscally strongest in the union...Palin's major achievement has probably meant the difference between a $12 billion surplus and a deficit."

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So how did she turn into the very definition of partisan snarling, a dumbed-down culture warrior better known for starting fights and familial drama than legislative feats? Green has one theory: "A big part of the answer 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." In the national election, the less worthy foes were Barack Obama and vague notions of cultural elites and the media. Green doesn't say so, but the former's fairly clean record wasn't much a foil, and she wasn't going to change any minds about the latter. Instead, she got an ever-entrenched constituency pleased to have a photogenic spokesperson for beliefs they had already held.

Anita Dunn, who worked both for Democrats in Alaska and the Obama campaign, tells Green that Palin "was this dowdy, but very attractive, person who drew a lot of support from progressive women. She was serious business." The perhaps unintentional implication is that progressive women liked her until she glammed up her image. But the truth is, she lost all people who cared about "serious business" when she chose the siren song of media celebrity, which happens to exclude being "dowdy," especially when you do TV.

Most crucially, that machine, whether it churns through social media or television appearances, doesn't reward bipartisanship or dealmaking; it rewards the easily retweetable or soundbite-ready statement, the more outrageous the better. This is a lesson Michele Bachmann has learned at least as well as Palin, though Bachmann is still nominally a legislator. Palin isn't in any sense, maybe because she's achieved what might elsewhere be recognized as the princess fantasy: All the attention and riches and people thinking you're pretty, even the ones who hate you—and none of the hard work.

The Tragedy Of Sarah Palin [The Atlantic]