"It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down [and] plod along," Sarah Palin said Friday, in an attempt to suggest that serving her full term as governor would add to the nation's apathy. "That's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out." Sarah Palin is no quitter. That's why she's quitting.
She's not the only one. For the past six months, about all that Republicans have been doing is resigning. On Friday, Sarah Palin said she was stepping down because "only dead fish 'go with the flow.' " But far from swimming upstream, she's the latest proof that for Republicans in government, the tide is out.
Look at the 2009 toll so far. One 2012 Republican wannabe, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, announced he would not seek re-election next year. One of the top woulda-beens, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, quit his job to join the Obama administration and left the country and the hemisphere. *
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter quit the party. Last month, Nevada Sen. John Ensign had to resign his Republican leadership post to spend more time with his sex scandal. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association. After this week's disastrous AP interview, Sanford soon may have to step down as governor as well. As his Argentine mistress said, you can't "put the genius back in the bottle."
When did the GOP become such a bunch of quitters? What ever happened to the party of Larry Craig and his you'll-never-take-me-from-this-stall-alive spirit?
Some Republican strategists insist that resignation has its virtues. Mary Matalin told the New York Times that Palin's "brilliant" move will free her to camp out alongside Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. Certainly, we can all relish the next two years of watching the Romney and Palin broods go five-on-five across the heartland. But Romney himself is proof that quitting is no way to win. In 2006, he passed up a second term so he could campaign full-time in Iowa and New Hampshire. He lost them both.
The fallacy that successful presidential candidates are too busy to govern dates back to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, who won the presidency as former governors. Yet neither Carter nor Reagan were quitters. Carter couldn't run for re-election in 1974 because in those days, Georgia governors were limited to one term. Reagan served two full terms as governor of California.
In the last 20 years, perseverers have prospered while quitters withered. Bill Clinton won a fifth term as governor of Arkansas before launching his 1992 campaign. George W. Bush won a second term in Texas two years before running for president in 2000.
Compare that with the dismal track record of strategic quitters. In 1986, Gary Hart chose not to run for a third Senate term and went on to meet Donna Rice. In 2004, John Edwards passed up a second Senate term and went on to meet Rielle Hunter.
Bill Bradley's decision not to seek a fourth term in 1996 helped cost him the Democratic nomination in 2000 to Al Gore, whose slogan was "stand and fight." Bob Dole's spectacular resignation from the Senate after he clinched the Republican nomination in June 1996 earned his campaign a few days of good press. But when his White House bid was over, Dole no longer had the Senate job he had loved.
Time after time, quitting has turned out to be the "worthless, easy path" that Sarah Palin insists it isn't. What makes her sudden resignation especially troubling, though, is not the flawed strategy so much as her jubilation and relief in putting the statehouse in her rear mirror. Palin's resignation is a symptom of what's crippling the Republican Party of late: Governing has become an unwelcome distraction.
Like Sanford's fatal press conference, Palin's bitter statement reads like a cry for help—an all-caps plea for someone to rescue her from the messy business of running Alaska. She passes up running for re-election because she doesn't need a title "to HELP people," then says she'll pack it in altogether rather than "milk" her lame-duck status by traveling to the Lower 48. Like Sanford, Palin snuck away to visit a distant land and fell in love with a siren she cannot bring home or leave behind. Her fatal attraction was the national spotlight.
Palin closed her statement with words she attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction." Right war, wrong general: The man who said those words was Oliver Smith, who helped his men escape annihilation at the Battle of the "Frozen Chosin" Reservoir in Korea. She should be so lucky. For Sarah Palin, avoiding disaster continues to be a losing battle.
Correction, July 6, 2009: This article originally gave the wrong first name for Utah's governor. He is Jon Huntsman. (Return to the corrected sentence.)