In the week since announcing her resignation, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been pummeled by critics who have called her incoherent, a quitter, a joke and a "political train wreck." And those were fellow Republicans talking.
Palin has been a polarizing figure from the moment she stepped off the tundra into the brightlights last summer as John McCain's surprise vice presidential running mate. Some of thathostility could be expected, given the hyper-partisanship of today's politics. What is remarkableis the contempt Palin has engendered within her own party and the fact that so many of herGOP detractors are willing, even eager, to express it publicly -- at a time, no less, when Palin isone of the early front-runners for the Republican's 2012 presidential nomination.
Some admit their preference that she stay in Alaska and forget about any national ambitions. "I am of the strong opinion that, at present day, she is not ready to be the leading voice of theGOP," said Todd Harris, a party strategist who likened Palin to the hopelessly dated "MiamiVice" -- something once cool that people regard years later with puzzlement and laughter. "It'snot even that she hasn't paid her dues. I personally don't think she's ready to be commander inchief." Others suggest a delayed response to last year's shaky campaign performance, now thatthe race is over and Republicans feel free to speak their minds openly.
"I can't tell you one thing she brought to the ticket," said Stuart K. Spencer, who has beenadvising GOP candidates for more than 40 years. "McCain wanted to shock and surprise people,and he did -- in a bad way." It is more than cruel sport, this picking apart of Alaska's departingchief executive.
The sniping reflects a serious split within the Republican Party, among itsprofessional ranks and some of its most ardent followers, which threatens not only toundermine Palin's White House ambitions -- if, indeed, that is what she harbors -- but also tocomplicate the party's search for a way back to power in Washington, D.C.
Consider a USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week. About 7-in-10 Republicans said theywould be likely to vote for Palin if she ran for president. Other surveys place Palin in astatistical dead heat with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, the former governors ofMassachusetts and Arkansas, respectively, who sought the White House in 2008 and give everyindication that they will try again in 2012.
Although any presidential poll taken this far out has to be taken with a sea's worth of salt, thatis not the reason so many Republican strategists and party insiders dismiss Palin.
"People at the grass roots see a charismatic personality who is popular with other people atthe grass roots. But their horizon only goes so far as people who think like them," said MikeMurphy. The veteran GOP ad man eviscerated Palin -- a "political train wreck," "an awfulchoice" for vice president, an "astonishing self-immolation" in resigning -- in a columnpublished Thursday in the New York Daily News.
"Professional operatives keep their eye on a broader horizon and understand, withoutindependents and swing voters she can't win," Murphy said. "She's a stone-cold loser in ageneral election." That, of course, is debatable and subject to any number of developments overthe next few years. A Palin spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview published Sunday in the Washington Times, Palin said she plans to write abook and campaign for political candidates nationwide, regardless of party affiliation, who shareher views on limited government, national defense and energy independence.
But the reaction this last week from Republican candidates around the country has beentelling. Asked if they planned to invite Palin to visit and campaign on their behalf, several ofthose facing tough races -- the ones who need to do more than turn out the party faithful orcollect their contributions -- were not rushing out the welcome mat.
"I don't generally need people from outside my district to do a fundraiser," Rep. Frank R. Wolf,a Republican from the Democratic-leaning suburbs of northern Virginia, told the Hillnewspaper.
Whatever one thinks of Palin, there is no question she has been subjected to a level of internalsniping -- friendly fire seems like a misnomer -- that is extraordinary.
The Republican criticism of Palin, 45, began during McCain's presidential run, privately atfirst, and broke into the open during the last troubled days of the Arizona senator's ill-starredcampaign. Finger-pointing and back-stabbing are hardly unusual in politics, especially on thelosing side.
But like so many things Palin-related -- the crowds, the adoration, the antipathy --the verbal strafing seems of a whole other magnitude. (How many other losing vice presidentialcandidates would merit a 10,000-word exegesis in Vanity Fair, which depicted Alaska's governoras a narcissistic, one-woman demolition derby.) Some blame sexism, although again there issharp disagreement between Palin's supporters and detractors. Some believe the former beautyqueen has always been hurt by her looks, whereas others believe they have helped herconsiderably. "If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about hertoday?" Murphy asked.
Others see a knee-jerk reaction from the political establishment, which will always frown onany populist outsider (think Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Howard Dean), much less a governorwho quits mid-term and shows up on TV in hip waders.
"The fact that she is a woman who's extremely attractive and dynamic and charismatic throwsthem for a loop," said Bay Buchanan, who strategized for her brother Pat's two insurgentpresidential campaigns. "Once they sense the first little sign of weakness, that's when they go infor the kill." No one knows where the future will take Palin, not even the governor herself. Herre-emergence on the national scene and the scathing response from so many of her party peers,however, underscores one thing: Republicans may hold dear their memories of the late RonaldReagan. But his famous 11th Commandment -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellowRepublican" -- was laid to rest a long time ago.