Sarah Palin's Lame Duck Defense

One of the stranger aspects of Sarah Palin's announcement Friday that she will resign as governor of Alaska was the notion that it followed naturally from her decision not to seek reelection next year.

The argument goes that executives who can't - or in Palin's case simply choose not to - seek reelection are no longer accountable to their constituents. Their legislative counterparts no longer have to worry about continuing to work with them. So they just amble on, enjoying the fancy dinners and chartered jets that come with their positions, accomplishing little in their waning days in office.

Palin put it this way in her resignation speech:

And so as I thought about this announcement that I wouldn't run for re-election and what it means for Alaska, I thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks... travel around the state, to the Lower 48 (maybe), overseas on international trade - as so many politicians do. And then I thought - that's what's wrong - many just accept that lame duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck, and "milk it". I'm not putting Alaska through that - I promised efficiencies and effectiveness!
She made the same argument in a July 4th Facebook post, saying, "Once I decided not to run for re-election, my decision was that much easier - I've never been one to waste time or resources."

It's a tough justification to swallow. Are we really to believe that serving out her term would be an automatic waste of time and resources? For one thing, its logical endpoint would be that all presidents should resign as soon as they're elected to a second term, lest they waste America's time with four years of unaccountable lame duck status. Senators and congressmen should resign too as soon as they see retirement or a losing electoral fight on the horizon.

More importantly, though, the argument often goes the other way. Presidents are often thought to be bolder in tackling tough political fights in their second terms when standing for reelection is no longer a concern.

Second (or later) term executives also don't have to appoint new cabinets and staffs or transition in from a lower office. They may even have a gained a bit of wisdom or experience serving their earlier terms.

It's certainly true that many presidents - reaching back to Thomas Jefferson - have had forgettable second terms. But Republican hero Ronald Reagan effectively ended the Cold War and passed vaunted GOP tax reforms in his "lame duck" second term. And it's not clear that the second term scourge applies in the same way to term-limited governors - who may, as Palin may, have further political aspirations.

And even if the lame duck arguments are true and second term executives are less effective, Palin is abdicating more than a year of service remaining in her current (first) term.

(Palin went on to argue in her Facebook post that, "Though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make," but it's far from clear who she is referring to that was lauded for ditching their elected office mid-term. Even Mark Sanford's planning to stick it out.)

Palin's possible motivations for resigning have been the subject of extensive discussion and debate, here on and elsewhere. Only time - and Palin's future course - will tell.

But the idea that Palin would automatically be letting her constituents down if she continued to serve even when she didn't plan to seek reelection seemed less a lame duck argument than just a lame argument.

  • Ken Millstone

    Ken Millstone is an assignment editor at