In many ways, electoral politics is like any other career: you enter as a grunt and “pay your dues” for many years before you eventually have the chance at the big-fish posts. Leaders around the world have made their way in this manner, slowly gaining credibility inside and outside the political establishments within which they reside. Boxes need to be checked and experience accrued, with the issues of security, economy, and social understanding at the top.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was elected in 1990 to serve as a backbencher for the Christian Democrats, before in 1994 becoming Minister of Environment, and CDU opposition party chair in 2000. She spent five years in this leadership post before finally becoming chancellor following the 2005 federal elections. Similarly, Gordon Brown has spent more than 25 years as a MP from the Scottish council area (county) of Fife, rising from opposition spokesperson on trade issues to Chancellor of the Exchequer, before becoming PM in 2007.
In the U.S., classic examples of the slow-but-steady pol include Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who both served for many years in their respective state houses and in the U.S. House of Representatives before getting an opening to run for the Senate.
Two politicians in the US in recent years have been able to buck this trend, however, through the time-tried method of aggressive and opportunistic carpe diem. Rather than methodically trudging through the ranks, both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin managed to catapult themselves ahead at a rapid, almost precipitous, pace. The former leapt from the Illinois State to the White House in just four years, after less than one term in U.S. Senate, while the latter transformed from small-town Wasilla, AK mayor in 2002 to vice-presidential hopeful in 2008, with a half-term stopover as Governor of Alaska.
Palin’s fascinating, if not bizarre, decision to step down as Governor on Friday after a bruising post-election period, therefore, might indicate that her star has risen to its peak. The decision seemed to be made out of frustration with the overwhelming attention on her family, a thirst for something sexier than the post of top executive Alaskan, mixed with a twist of characteristically impulsive (“you can’t blink”) day-seizing. While Palin’s public towel-throwing has signalled a capitulation, if temporary, to the allegations against her, including unethical behavior and incompetance, perhaps the more interesting question is why her rapid-rising opponent has managed not to stumble in the same fashion.
Since he annouced his intention to run for President in early 2007, Obama was dogged by allegations that his thin national public record, including no executive experience at any level, overly intellectual style of argumentation, and Chicago Democratic machine roots would bring him down. Rather than hamper his administration, however, questions of experience, qualification and fitness for office almost completely dissolved following the election. Today, only wing-nut argumentation has persisted, such as the conspiracy theories about Obama’s secret birth in Kenya, rather than Hawaii as his birth certificate verifies.
Perhaps this is in part the winner’s spoils, with the benefit of the doubt going with the White House turf. Since Obama managed to win with a resounding 365 electoral votes, and has a amassed a formidable and experienced team, the proof will be in the pudding. Palin, however, has continued to play a starring role in the “what if” game of the 2008 election, with highly divergent tales of her, alternatively as a charismatic ticket boost and as a moronic non-team player.
Nonetheless, the key for Obama has been a combination of shark-like opportunism, combined with a level of brand and image control that puts GM and Microsoft to shame. Palin, while a master of the first component, never has been able to discipline her messaging in a way that clearly defines her in a positive and transformational light, as testified to by Friday’s rambling resignation. It is likely that a minor reboot is in store, with Palin reemerging to focus at the national level to rebuild her reputation and financial resources, with an eye towards better branding whether 2012 is the diem she wants to grab.
Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org