In his column in today's Times, Ross Douthat argues that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama represent two different American ideals of success:
Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
It's always great to do well in school and go to a good college, but does getting your act together a few years earlier than others represent a completely different American success paradigm? To me, it's all the same American meritocratic ideal, represented by Obama, Palin, Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska), Arnold Schwarzenneger (University of Wisconsin-Superior), and many others. There are plenty of stumbling blocks out there, but anyone from any background can grow up to succeed enormously. This includes people who get a later start in their ambitions.
Douthat goes on to suggest that the central lesson of Palin's quick flame-out (if that's what we're all witnessing here), is that her gender and social class made for vicious double-standards that few could withstand.
Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.
But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.
I see it differently. I think the great moral here is: "Do your homework." If you aspire to be a great national leader, lead -- not with empty platitudes, but with vision and serious plans. Agree or disagree with Obama, few would argue that he's not a serious man for serious times. He's very young, yes, and came to the campaign with a relatively thin resume, but made up for it with intellectual firepower, extraordinary team-building, detailed plans, a sweeping vision, and a refined temperament. He did his homework, and he did it better than anyone else running for president. He won.
By contrast, Sarah Palin also sought a quick rise and was tactically adroit but did little to accrue substance along the way. She burned through allies, demonstrated petty vindictiveness, and most of all, simply didn't prepare for the national stage. There's no question she was also treated harshly -- but were others not? Do we forget the lies about Obama's religion and the smears of association with terrorists?
The best part of all about America's meritocracy is that it is full of second, third, and fourth chances. Sarah Palin could decide tomorrow to become a serious contender, and it wouldn't take but a few years for her to emerge as a truly formidable force. Her future is still in her hands. Like all of us, her successes and failures will belong to her.