Palin's leadership

Governor has been effective, but leaves details to others

September 6, 2008 

Now that Sarah Palin has burst onto the national scene, Americans may be wondering:

As governor of Alaska, what kind of leader has she been?

In our view, Sarah Palin has been very effective -- surprisingly so, considering her previous leadership experience was as mayor of a town with about 6,000 people.

Gov. Palin is not the kind of leader who gets bogged down in minutia and works 100-hours a week. Instead, she uses her charisma and a simple, clear vision to mobilize mass support for her agenda, then leaves the details and heavy lifting to others.


As governor, she has focused almost exclusively on a handful of high-priority issues -- ethics, oil tax reform and state incentives for building a natural gas pipeline. And she has had dramatic success. With Gov. Palin leading the way, the Legislature passed strong legislation on all three fronts. On two of those issues, she had to take on Alaska's previously all-powerful oil industry. Twice she easily defeated them.

Palin has a knack for the populist gesture, and Alaskans know it's sincere, not just for show. She pledged to sell Gov. Murkowski's state jet -- and she did. She drives herself to work. She found other duties for the chef at the governor's mansion. Palin is the only major political figure in the past 20 years who regularly comes to Daily News editorial board meetings by herself, with no flunkies or handlers.


Outside of her top priorities, though, the limitations of Gov. Palin's leadership style begin to show. She delegates much of the detail work and spends little time on second-tier subjects.

That management style can work -- if you have assembled a crackerjack, detail-oriented management team. That's what she did with her effort on the natural gas pipeline -- and it helps explain her success on that issue. However, in many areas, Palin has had to rely on people with a weak track record of running state government or working with the Legislature.

As a foe of the Republican establishment, she doesn't have a deep pool of talent to draw on. She has not yet found a replacement for the public safety commissioner she forced out earlier this summer. Her first replacement choice resigned after just two weeks because he had misled Alaskans about his record of sexual harassment. A stronger staff would have done a better job of vetting the candidate and spared the governor the embarrassment.


Palin racked up her legislative victories even though her allies in the Legislature criticized her lobbying effort. Here at the Daily News, we repeatedly heard the complaint: The governor is missing in action; her staffers aren't working the halls the way they should be.

Palin dislikes the give-and-take that usually helps smooth the way for political decisions. She states her case and expects legislators to base their actions on the merits of the issue.


One of Gov. Palin's great strengths as a reformer also has a downside. She has a fervent sense of what's right and what's wrong and has little concern for political consequences. This fearless sense of righteousness has generally served her well -- as when she went after Alaska's arrogant and corrupt Republican political establishment.

But Alaskans have seen in Troopergate how this part of Palin's character can be a weakness too. In Palin's mind, her ex-brother-in-law was a violent, intimidating, irresponsible person who has no business being a state trooper. And she's right about that. But she had no sense of how continuing to push her concerns as governor might lead to political, or even legal, trouble.


One big surprise about Palin's term as governor: She has been thoroughly bipartisan. Her most reliable supporters on her big three accomplishments have been Democrats. The partisan side that Palin showed in her acceptance speech Thursday is something Alaskans haven't seen in her time as governor.

Earlier this year, Palin told a cable news interviewer that somebody is going to have to tell her "what it is exactly that the VP does." In some ways, the vice president's job is a perfect fit for her. She wouldn't have to run the country. She could focus on a handful of high-profile issues, inspire people with her passion and star power, and try to accomplish a few great things.

The big question is whether she'd be ready to take over as president should 72-year-old John McCain die in office. Gov. Palin doesn't have the typical resume of a vice-presidential candidate -- but she does have proven leadership skills, and she has two months to demonstrate them to the country.

BOTTOM LINE: Palin is strong on vision and rallying public support; she's not so strong on the detailed work of governance.

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