Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, has accused members of President Barack Obama’s administration of a dirty tricks campaign to derail her political career.
Palins bizarre announcement that she would quit her post as governor of Alaska on July 26 stunned political friends and foes and has been greeted with derision by a growing number of prominent Republicans. Some conservative insiders have accused the charismatic mother-of-five of succumbing to “paranoia”.
Among the many explanations for her abrupt departure – from an alleged desire to be free to pursue the presidency in 2012 to money worries and ethics problems – the theory put forward by her spokeswoman, Meg Stapleton, is that members of Obama’s White House are to blame.
Palin, 45, complained in her resignation speech on July 3 that she was being hounded constantly by “frivolous” ethics complaints. “This [is] political absurdity, the politics of personal destruction,” she said. “Todd [her husband] and I are looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills to set the record straight.”
Stapleton told Time magazine last week: “A lot of this comes from Washington DC. The trail is pretty direct and obvious to us.”
Palin and her advisers believe the most damaging ethics accusation concerned “Trooper-gate”, when Palin was accused of pursuing a vendetta to get her former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, sacked as an Alaska state trooper. A month before the 2008 presidential election, in which she was Senator John McCain’s running mate, the Alaska legislative council found Palin guilty of abusing her power after an investigator concluded that “impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda”.
Palin dismissed the finding as a partisan smear, but it furthered the impression that she was not presidential material after running Alaska, the least populous state in the union, as her own personal fiefdom.
Kim Elton, the Alaska state senator who chaired the legislative council, is a friend of Peter Rouse, Obama’s former Senate chief of staff, who used to live in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Rouse now serves as a senior adviser to Obama at the White House and Elton was appointed director of Alaska affairs at the US Department of the Interior in March.
Palin made no secret of her irritation at the alleged reward, saying Elton “pledged his allegiance to Obama last summer”. She is convinced Obama’s team had a hand in the Troopergate operation.
According to Stapleton, the barrage of ethics charges against Palin was typical of the hardball tactics of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s combative chief of staff, as described in the book The Thumpin’, about how Emanuel steered the Democrats to victory in the 2006 congressional elections. “It’s how they operate,” Stapleton said.
The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “The charge is ridiculous. From my vantage point a lot of the criticism she seems to be getting is from self-inflicted wounds.”
In an article in NewsMax, a leading conservative online publication, the writer Ronald Kessler said Palin was increasingly paranoid: “In contrast to the self-confidence and sunny demeanour that won over so many, Palin has become a suspicious, sulking diva.”
Earlier this year she attended a conference of state senators chaired by Gary Stevens, the Republican president of the Alaska Senate. Asked politely if she would like to share her plans for the coming legislative session, Palin stunned the room by complaining: “I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot.”
She has also accepted and then abruptly rejected invitations to speak at conservative dinners, and had staff vet even the friendliest reporters’ backgrounds. Kessler writes: “Her biggest supporters have been appalled at her transformation.”
David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, a leading activist organisation, said scathingly last week: “In the period leading up to the resignation she needed to get over the fact that people didn’t like her, get over the fact that she harboured resentment for the McCain people that used her. All of those things are true, but she got more out of it than they did.”
Joining in the attacks on Palin, Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that Republicans should stop defending her wayward behaviour. “She makes the party look stupid, a party of the easily manipulated.”
She also dismissed the idea that Palin was a champion of hearty middle American values, arguing that she had been created by McCain and the media she purports to despise. “She is a complete elite confection,” Noonan wrote. “She might as well have been a bonbon.”
Levi Johnston, 19, the estranged father of Palin’s teenage daughter’s baby, claimed last week that the opportunity to make money from her book, television and the talk show circuit was behind Palin’s decision to resign. She talked about “how nice it would be to take some of this money people have been offering us and just run with it, and saying, ‘Forget everything else’”, he said.
Prominent Republicans, including governors who are seeking reelection, are proving reluctant to invite her to speak or fundraise for them, despite her ability to garner crowds, until her motives for quitting and future plans are clearer.
If Obama’s team did help to derail her, it succeeded spectacularly. She is just one of several leading conservatives whose presidential aspirations have imploded in the past few weeks.
Mark Sanford, the married Republican governor of South Carolina, severely embarrassed his party after flying secretly to Argentina for a tryst with his mistress and then babbling about his love for her nonstop on television. But for Palin’s problems, which drove his adultery off the front page, he might already have been forced from office.
The same goes for John Ensign, a Nevada senator who is facing increasing pressure from his own side to resign after it was revealed that his parents paid $96,000 hush money to his mistress and her family in an apparent bid to keep news of his affair secret.
The claim by Ensign’s lawyer that the money was paid “out of concern for the wellbeing of long-time family friends during a difficult time” has failed to impress even the senator’s closest allies.
“The Republicans are dropping like flies,” said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “The party is beginning to look third rate. It could take a generation for the Republicans to return to power, as with the Tories after Margaret Thatcher.”
The collapse of the Republicans has been an unexpected boon for Obama, who has been running into the first serious difficulties of his presidency. With unemployment reaching 10%, despite a massive $787 billion stimulus to the economy, his approval ratings among independent voters have declined from 59% in June to 53% in July, according to the latest Gallup poll.
However, the absence of a credible Republican opposition has created its own problems for Obama, who is facing increasing obstruction from Democrats in Congress and attacks from party activists frustrated by the pace of change.
Obama wants Congress to approve a $1 trillion heath package but is running into resistance from conservative-lean-ing “blue dog” Democrats, who believe it would inevitably lead to higher taxes.
There is also concern in the Senate about his climate change bill and plans to cut carbon emissions, which could lead to higher costs for industry, businesses and consumers.
“He’s like a juggler with several balls in the air. It’s a real challenge to keep them from hitting him,” said William Galston, a policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “He’s done a reasonably good job of keeping his initiatives from grinding to a halt, but whether they will get across the finish line is in doubt.”
The party’s left wing has also proved restless. Moveon.org, the campaigning group that was the scourge of President George W Bush, last week turned its fire on Emanuel for suggesting the White House was open to compromise on healthcare reform.
With the only opposition coming from his own side, Obama is in danger of getting walked over by the Democratic majority in Congress and losing his sheen with the American public.
“Democratic presidents used to have trouble with Democrats in Congress because there was no threat from the Republicans; they wouldn’t pass Jimmy Carter’s bills and they wouldn’t pass Bill Clinton’s bills,” said Sabato. The voters went on to punish Democrats at the polls.
It could be useful for Obama to have a few more Republicans around, if only to scare his own party into line.
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