The Campaign Spot

Did Alaska’s Ethics Law End Up Picking the GOP 2012 Nominee?

A Palin fan wrote in, glad that I hadn’t taken glee in Sarah Palin’s decision to not run for president in 2012. No point in rubbing salt in anybody’s wound; disappointment is tough enough to take as is.

If you look back in the archives, Palin was the first candidate where I thought, “I could leave the world of journalism and join the campaign. It would be worth it to make history.” Then came the decision to quit the governorship. While that choice was understandable considering the financial strain her family was under, it made a 2012 bid vastly more difficult.


Remember, Palin backed the Alaska law that allowed anybody to file an ethics complaint that had to be legally reviewed, and the law (at least as it was ultimately interpreted up in Alaska) didn’t allow legal defense funds. In 2010, the law was changed so that the state would pay legal costs for officials cleared of ethics violations.

As Quin Hillyer put it:

Going Rogue is instructive. In it, she makes much of what she called the “rawhide-tough” ethics package that she shepherded through the state legislature. It clearly remains a point of deep pride for her. Yet Palin also writes that “disgruntled political operatives twisted the ethics reform process that I had championed into a weapon to use against me.” Later, she explained why:

Keep in mind that anyone anywhere in the world could file an Alaska ethics complaint free of charge. . . .They could flood the system at will and without consequence to themselves, but we had to formally process each and every complaint — and I had to pay personally for my own defense.

Yet it doesn’t seem to occur to her that this imbalance was the eminently predictable result of her own reforms. Experience in and around government teaches the lesson that getting tough on ethics is a two-edged sword. Without some sort of reasonable filter against frivolous complaints, then as night follows day it’s guaranteed that frivolous complaints will flow in. Without reasonable filters, the ethics laws become a cudgel against even the most honest of politicians — just as they did against Palin herself. Good intentions lead to hellish consequences, the public’s interest is sacrificed instead of served, and Palin herself felt moved to resign to escape the hellish process that her own handiwork created.

If Palin had been permitted a defense fund, I have no doubt that many conservatives would have and could have given to it; before it was deemed impermissable, Palin supporters had donated $386,000. Without the financial strain on her family and the distraction to her governing, perhaps then she never would have quit the governorship.


Palin, as a reelected successful second-term governor, would look very different in this 2012 field than Palin the pundit and public speaker.


Early on, a smart GOP strategist said to me, “The way you change the perception of a candidate is to change the reality of a candidate. If the candidate is seen as deficient in foreign policy, dive into it, take a trip abroad, meet foreign leaders, do all the things you can to change not merely the perception of inexperience in that area but the reality of how much the candidate knows and understands about that area.” To change the perception of Sarah Palin, she would have to change the reality. If the people think you’re dumb, make smart decisions and demonstrate positive results. (Her natural gas pipeline deal struck me as one of the best counter-arguments for this sort of thing . . .)


Instead, Palin made a bunch of decisions that didn’t focus on her perceived weaknesses — was she ready to be president, could she handle the job — and instead reinforced the strengths — the reality show, the Fox News deal, the lucrative speaking gigs, the Facebook posts, etc. Her fan base loved them, but they did noting to win over skeptics. If you don’t plan on running — and I have a hard time believing that she really remained 100 percent undecided until very recently — that’s fine. But if you do plan on running, you have to address your weak spots honestly and take them head-on.