It was just a little over a week ago that Sarah Palin stunned the nation with her announcement she would be stepping down as governor of Alaska.
Predictably the news set off a round of speculation that she was leaving office to avoid being tarred by some unfolding scandal or that, as her former future son-in-law Levi Johnston suggested recently, she was giving up her office in order to cash in on her newfound fame and popularity.
In truth, the reasons she gave for her departure, however eloquently or poorly she may have done so -- by all means a subjective standard heavily influenced by whether one likes or dislikes her -- are likely the real ones.
There was little else she could accomplish in the remainder of her term. Her popularity, in Alaska and across the nation, made her an obvious target for Democrats seeking to preemptively knock her out of the 2012 presidential race. The score plus of ethics complaints lodged against her already, which have been dismissed as being largely or wholly without merit, attests to that.
For Democrats, bashing Sarah Palin has been good business -- one even received a high-profile and well paying job in the Obama administration after leading an investigation into her actions as governor during the 2008 campaign, though for the job to have been a reward, a quid pro quo for services rendered, would be illegal.
Palin is almost certainly correct that the complaints -- and the escalating costs of fending them off -- would have been too expensive for her and for the citizens of her state to have put up with it for much longer. But that is now all in the past. What matters now is how she approaches her future, if she really wants to be president of the United States.
It is not true that a politician contemplating a run for the nation's highest office must be a sitting elected official. Eisenhower never held political office before running for president. Nixon had already lost one presidential contest and had been out of office for eight years before being elected in 1968. Ronald Reagan had not been governor of California for two years when he ran -- and almost defeated Gerald Ford -- in the 1976 GOP primary. And Mitt Romney walked away from the governorship of Massachusetts after only one term, yet he is generally regarded as one of the leading contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Being a statewide elected official or, for that matter vice president is useful because it provides a helpful platform from which to launch a national campaign. It provides access to donors, volunteers and the political machinery necessary to run for president, the ability to demonstrate, if not vision and commitment at least competence, and an introduction to the national electorate. But it's not the only way to assemble the resources that a needed for a presidential bid.
Eisenhower, who commanded the troops in Europe during World War II, didn't need elective office to establish his platform. The Republicans, as well as the Democrats, came to him. Nixon had a national network of his own, cobbled together over years of hard work and campaigning for other Republicans in 1964 and 1966. Reagan, who was already known to the country as a motion picture star, had his weekly radio address and his years on the broiled chicken and mashed potatoes circuit for General Electric. And Romney, who tried to use his one term as governor as a stepping stone, has an immense fortune and his national reputation as the savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics on which to draw.
Palin, almost singularly by virtue of her speech at the Republican National Convention, has established herself as the spokesman for middle-America within the GOP. She is not universally liked; the more urbane and urban elements of the party think she is too conservative, perhaps too plain speaking to be the national spokesman. But it is undeniable that her message -- and not just her image as a "Pit Bull with lipstick" -- resonated with large segments of the American electorate, making her a force to be reckoned with in national politics.
By giving up the governorship Palin frees herself to build up the national network she needs for an effective presidential run. The Internet makes it easier to reach people and to recruit them but it is still the case that, when it comes to Alaska, you can't get here from there. She will soon be free to travel the nation at her own pace, without feeling obliged to rush back to the capital to deal with pressing state business. It means she can attend Lincoln Day dinners and county fairs and state GOP conventions and meet, face to face, with the people who will be casting ballots in 2012.
It also means she is free to appear on behalf of people who are running on the Republican line in 2099 and 2010. This will give her valuable political chits that can be cashed in when and if she runs for president, as George H. W. Bush proved after eight years as Reagan's vice president.
It will take time for her to find her voice, to establish herself as a serious contender and to shake the "quitter" label her opponents have tried to attach to her but it is almost a sure thing that she can do it. By leaving office, even though she did it mid-term, Palin has done the best possible thing she could to find success in the 2012 presidential contest.