When the elected, like Palin, exit badly
Public office is a contract with voters. The exit bar should be high.
When Sarah Palin announced her intention to resign as Alaska's governor last week, she pointedly said she did not want to mimic the saying on her parents' refrigerator: "Don't explain: Your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway."
Alaskan voters do deserve an explanation. But despite her lengthy statement on July 3, a follow-up on July 4, and elaboration from the state's lieutenant governor on July 5, it's still not clear exactly why the former Republican vice-presidential candidate of 2008 has decided to quit the governorship with 18 months to go in her first term.
Leaving public office is not the same as saying goodbye to a private-sector job. Public office is a contract with voters who (hopefully) take the time to inform themselves and fill out a ballot. Candidates win their trust, and in return, the public expects them to do the job – which is to represent citizens' interests and bring their own wisdom for the term of service. The bar for exit must be high.
Since 1949, 45 governors have resigned from office, according to the National Governors Association. The causes generally fall into two categories: a handful of ethics breaches and violations of the law (in which case states are usually better off without that particular executive); and migration to other offices – judgeships, congressional seats, appointments as cabinet secretaries and ambassadors (still a broken contract but at least a continuation of public service). [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of governors who have resigned.]
Ms. Palin will join a small club of only 10 governors in the last 60 years who resigned before their first term was up. Almost all of them were appointed to or sought other public offices. In 1969, for instance, Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew – like Palin – ran as a vice-presidential candidate (with Richard Nixon).
But Palin seems to stand alone in some of the explanations she has given. Because she decided she won't run for reelection, she said, she wants to spare Alaskans a lame-duck governor who wastes their money in meaningless travel around the state and beyond. She doesn't need to quit to avoid that trap. Palin also says she's already accomplished her goals for the state. That must mean Alaska has no more problems to solve.
The woman who electrified the Republican base as John McCain's running mate also pointed to a "higher calling" ahead. But until she specifies what that is, it's hard for Alaskans to judge the trade-off.
If she means a run for the presidency in 2012, she'll have weaker experience credentials, and difficulty convincing people that she can hang in there when criticism hits. If a "higher calling" means campaigning for other candidates – a point she mentioned – isn't her first obligation to her state's electorate?
No question, Gov. Palin has had rough treatment. She's been subject to more than a dozen ethics investigations and the object of the "politics of personal destruction." All but one of the investigations has been resolved.
She inches closer to a credible explanation for her resignation when she says that the state has wasted time and resources on fighting "frivolous" ethics violations. And yet, the public and authorities must maintain their right to question.
As for destructive politics, the world would certainly be better off without that – as another vilified female politician, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, can attest. But for now, it seems to go with the territory. Politicians need a thick skin. Palin made it harder on herself by catching the arrows that were slung at her instead of letting them drop to the ground.
Of all the reasons Palin mentioned, the one that Alaska's voters might find most acceptable is her family. She said that she and her husband are "looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills in order to set the record straight." And when she put the possibility of resigning to a family vote, the answer came back affirmative, she says.
The personal often affects the professional. It can interfere with getting the job done. And when family life is severely worsened because of professional life, the sacrifice can be rightly judged as not worth it. Most voters understand this. It's all the other reasons that might rightly puzzle them.