North Conway, N.H. There isn’t a presidential yard sign in sight up here. Nobody at the gas station that sells maybe the best doughnuts in the world is talking about the next presidential primary. Lots of the politicos have gone fishing ... or hiking, or kayaking. That is quite literally true.
Sure, everyone noticed Sarah Palin’s stunning announcement that she is relinquishing the governor’s office with the grizzly bear rug two weeks from now. And no one quite knows what it means when a politician says she wants to engage in public issues by removing herself from public power.
As we approach the dog days of summer, it is important to remember two facts: New Hampshire is a state that loves an underdog. (Good luck in describing a one-time vice-presidential nominee as an underdog.) And this is a state that, only a few miles from here, holds a two-day sled dog race on frozen Chocorua Lake every winter. (Memo to New England Sled Dog Club in Tamworth, N.H.: Todd Palin is coming your way. No one has had New Hampshire visuals like that since Robert Taft was photographed holding a chicken six decades ago.)
But right now there is almost no major New Hampshire political figure identified as a “Palin Republican” nor any prominent group of people positioning itself that way. That may not be surprising, given that the New Hampshire primary is 30 months away. (There is no major group or individual touting Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, here either, or anywhere for that matter.)
Yet there already is a narrative building for the Republicans as they try to regroup from their 2008 debacle.
Part of it is the resilience of an established figure like Newt Gingrich, reviled by the mainstream media but a formidable generator of ideas and, more important, passion among some Republicans. Part of it is the eclipse of such figures as Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, victims of marriage malfunctions no less public than Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.
And part of it is the determination of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, unsuccessful contender in 2008, to remain in the public eye and to remain in the presidential calculus. The truth is that Romney never has stopped working New Hampshire and, more important, that virtually no one who was with him in 2008 is showing signs of being with anyone else in 2012.
It is very, very early, of course, but right now the issues — the economy, energy, health care — play unusually to one candidate’s strength, with the result that any account of the Republicans’ passage toward 2012 is going to center on Romney’s ascension or failure as much as it is going to center on Palin’s political triumph or demise.
Romney’s strategists already have adjusted to the new landscape, one with the Alaska governor free to travel the Lower 48, mining New Hampshire’s hills and plowing Iowa’s fields in an effort to establish an independent power base for a presidential run.
The gist of their argument is this: Lots of people have served one term as governor — Romney, conveniently, is a prominent example — and then gone on to other political jobs. But serving out the term she sought willingly is the least Palin can do, especially since she spent so much time away from the state in the 2008 campaign.
Indeed, the contretemps over the Palin decision may serve to enhance the Romney effort. His campaign almost certainly will contrast it with Romney, who finished what he started and by comparison — this is the phrase they will use — seems like the responsible ex-governor in the field.
The advantage for Palin, however, is that her action underscores her profile as an unconventional politician willing to defy the mastodons of the media even as it might help her address her largest vulnerability in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire: She is not known in them and has hardly been to them. Her visit to New Hampshire in the fall of 2008 was at best a mixed success (much griping among insiders about the advance work), and she is known mostly by television. That never works here.
Successful New Hampshire candidates — ask Sen. John McCain, who won the state both in 2000 and 2008 — are the ones who plant themselves here, install themselves in coffee shops, hold town meetings, answer unscripted questions and linger in school auditoriums or in college theaters engaging the very last person in the room. Palin has done that in Alaska. She now must do it in New Hampshire.
The Palin decision came less than a week before the death of Robert S. McNamara, and though the two events may seem thoroughly unrelated, there is an important thread that bears examining.
Much of Palin’s appeal derives from her defiance of the experts’ expectations — and from her skepticism, even hostility, toward experts and expert advice. Much of McNamara’s disastrous historical legacy derives from his role as an unassailable expert — but as an expert who was proven wrong in the largest political, military and moral question of his time.
Political leadership requires neither a hostility to expert advice — surely Palin would not, for example, seek the least expert doctor to treat an ailing member of her family — nor a worship of it. Both Palin’s aversion to expertise and McNamara’s fealty to it are extreme positions at odds with political leadership, which at base is an outsized version of common sense.
The burial of McNamara and the end of Palin’s gubernatorial tenure come at a moment when we need common sense most of all. We need it, in fact, more than we need a presidential campaign that lasts 30 months, and for the sin of this contribution to the ever-lengthening political season I ask your forbearance — and your forgiveness. Go fishing, hiking or kayaking. I will.