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By Jay Cost

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Maybe She Doesn't Want To Be President

According to the Census Bureau, there were about 160 million people in the United States who were at least 35 years old last year. My rough count of declared presidential candidates in 2008 sits between 150 and 200. Factoring out the foreign born, and dividing the latter by the former, we can say that about 99.9999% of those constitutionally eligible for the presidency did not seek the job. Additionally, 95% of all sitting senators, 98% of all sitting governors, and 99% of all sitting representatives did not seek the presidency last year. I didn't calculate the numbers on former senators, governors, and representatives - but I am sure they would be even larger. From this, we can reasonably infer that most people don't want to be president. It's the life ambition for some - but not for most of us.

I mention this because in all the analyses of Sarah Palin's decision to resign from the governorship of Alaska - it's often been overlooked that maybe she is one of these people.

The classic treatise on political ambition was written by Joseph Schlesinger more than 40 years ago. In Ambition and Politics, he argues cogently that there is a stable "opportunity structure" to electoral politics that governs the ambitions of office-seekers. Two implications of this concept are relevant here.

First, there is a hierarchy of political jobs in this country such that serious candidates for a given office tend to hold one of several lower-order positions. As Schlesinger writes, "American political careers do not proceed chaotically. There are patterns of movement from office to office." When it comes to the presidency, credible contenders typically come from the vice-presidency, the Senate, governors' mansions, battlefields, and so on. In light of this, Palin's resignation strongly suggests that she has no intention of running in 2012. It is hypothetically possible, I suppose, that somebody could resign a governorship after only 32 months of service yet still win the presidency without having held any other immediately qualifying position. But then again, it is hypothetically possible that the Detroit Lions will have a winning season this year. I wouldn't hold my breath for either.

Second, politicians do not advance up the ladder via some overarching strategy. Though of course many have a general desire to move upwards, they all must take opportunities as they present themselves. Assessments of risk and reward must govern their choices. This makes sense: one of the worst things that can happen to professional politicians is electoral defeat; if they don't win, they have to find another line of work! Accordingly, they need to pick their battles, which basically prohibits them from developing some grand scheme. So, for instance, I'd guess that in 2004 Barack Obama did not have designs on a presidential run in 2008. He surely wanted to be president - but he probably planned to wait until an opening presented itself, which happened to come pretty quickly for him. As regards Sarah Palin, this suggests that while she might like to run for the presidency in 2016 or 2020 - those dates are so far off that nothing she did on Friday counts as appreciable movement in that direction. Anyway, the previous point implies that she'd have to run for another office other than president between now and then - and that would have to be her principal focus.

Thus, I'd suggest that perhaps Governor Palin has no designs on the presidency. Her resignation on Friday is certainly consistent with this thesis. Perhaps she has a mind for 2016 or 2020, but that is so far away that there is little planning for it now.

I do not think this theory is all that implausible. My guess is that Palin had not seriously considered a run for the top job when McCain came calling last August. After all, the governorship of Alaska is a lousy perch from which to start a run for the White House. In fact, of the 150 governorships and Senate seats - I'd say that being governor of Alaska is the worst place to begin. It's a thinly populated state - raising inevitable questions about whether the job is sufficient preparation. Plus, it's terribly far away. The distance from Wasilla, Alaska to Ames, Iowa is 3,354 miles, suggesting that the logistics of a candidacy would be extremely burdensome.

It's important to remember that it was John McCain who invited her to the national stage. He plucked her out of obscurity because he thought Joe Lieberman was a bridge too far and Tim Pawlenty didn't have enough pizzazz. She was there by his request. Since her introduction to the nation - it hasn't gone all that well for her. Her performance generated mixed reviews. That's a bad position from which to start your own run for the White House. You don't want to have half the country disapproving of you when you begin. Worse, she and her family have become fodder for wild speculation from irresponsible bloggers, salacious stories from celebrity magazines, groundless ethics complaints from political opponents, lousy jokes from late-night comedians who should have retired a decade ago, and criticisms from former McCain flacks looking to deflect blame for the haphazard, incoherent campaign they ran. You would have to really want to be president to press forward in the face of the headwind she has faced.

It's hard to blame her for doing what she did on Friday, although many critics still managed. If I were in her shoes, having been asked by my party's nominee to accept the vice-presidential nomination, then having been put through the wringer the way she and her family have, I wouldn't want to run for the presidency. I wouldn't want to run for reelection as governor. And I too would be inclined to resign altogether. One difference between her and me: I would not have been as gracious as she was last Friday.

-Jay Cost