Sarah in Wonderland

When Gary A. Lee, chair of Florida's Lee County Republican Party, heard Sarah Palin's resignation speech, he felt "absolute exhilaration." Lee had been publicly enthusiastic about a Palin presidential bid, and nothing he heard on Friday changed that. Watching her, he says, was "riveting -- the fact that she is stepping up, on behalf of families, her state, and the nation, and her willingness to assume what I think will be major national leadership is inspirational both for our republic and the Republican Party." When you look at her, he says, "you see leadership. She's blessed with it in my opinion."

Most observers outside of conservative circles find it hard to believe that Sarah Palin has abandoned the Alaska governorship for a possible run for the presidency. It's simply too irrational -- being governor was her only conceivable qualification for the office. Her rambling resignation speech seemed rushed and impulsive. It was full of internal contradictions (remaining governor would be the "quitter's way out") and petulant complaints about media unfairness (which suggest she couldn't bear the pressure of national office). Many assumed that she was trying to get out in advance of some scandal -- as Josh Marshall wrote shortly after the story broke, "I would not be surprised if this latest round of revelations shook something else loose that we haven't heard about yet." That's certainly possible. But even if it is, from a certain right-wing perspective, she really is advancing rather than retreating.

After all, there's a parallel right-wing universe out there in which Palin is a victim not of her own incompetence but of a profoundly corrupt and vicious media, and being governor leaves her unable to defend herself against outrageous innuendos. In this universe, it is Barack Obama who is the shallow intellectual lightweight, helpless without his teleprompter. As he marches America toward socialism, and spineless Republican elites dither, the country cries out for a leader, a cry that sounds a lot like, "SARAH! SARAH! SARAH!" Plenty of her supporters see her as a hero, a martyr, or both. Maybe she sees herself that way, too.

Everything in her statement, which, in the text published on her political action committee Web site, is full of random capitalizations and bizarre punctuation, indicates that Palin resides in the looking-glass world of the conservative base. She described the inception of her vice-presidential candidacy as the "REAL 'climate change' that began in August." She said she plans to fight for "strong national security for our country and support for our troops; energy independence; and for those who will protect freedom and equality and LIFE... I'll work for and campaign for those PROUD to be American, and those who are INSPIRED by our ideals and won't deride them." She railed against "this TOP DOWN big government take-over."

Palin clearly believes that she's been the victim of a media conspiracy. She cooperated with right-wing radio host John Ziegler's documentary on the 2008 election, Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted. On June 9, she appeared on Ziegler's radio show, telling him, "It was an amazing documentary. You were able to encapsulate so much of what happened with the media in that campaign; I thought it was very brilliant."

To Ziegler, it's clear Palin did the honorable thing by stepping aside to spare her state the media onslaught. "The most shocking part of all is that a politician has done something that they perceive to be in the self- interest of their state and their family, and not necessarily in their political self-interest," Ziegler says. "A major crime has been committed in the news media by these left-wing nut jobs, and we're here criticizing the victim."

Palin appears to view things similarly. In a July 4 posting on her Facebook page, she blamed the media for its reaction to her resignation statement: "The response in the main stream [sic] media has been most predictable, ironic, and as always, detached from the lives of ordinary Americans who are sick of the 'politics of personal destruction'. How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country. And 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."

There are two things to be gleaned from this post. Most obviously, it's another example of her self-pitying sense of victimization. More interestingly, though, is the reference to the "countless others" who leave their positions without finishing a term.

Many on the right are quick to point out that Obama didn't finish his term, either. The conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway -- who says she's been both a fan and a critic of Palin -- calls the idea that Palin is a quitter "odd," saying, "Hillary Clinton left her term early, Barack Obama left his term early." Again, to those outside the conservative movement, it's obvious that there's a big difference between quitting to accept an administration position and quitting for reasons that no one can quite fathom. But to her base, it isn't.

"She has more experience than Obama had before he was elected," Lee says. "She could finish the job, but she chose to do the responsible thing by saying, 'I'm not going to pretend to be governor, [I'm] going to move up to a national leadership role.'" If Palin buys into the low opinion so many on the right have of Obama's intelligence and qualifications, then leaving Alaska after less than three years to run for president doesn't seem so absurd.

Ziegler, for one, doesn't think Palin made her decision with a presidential run in mind, but he does think that if she decides to enter the race, her primary opponents won't dare to call her a quitter. "No person running for the Republican nomination would be stupid enough to kind of make that kind of attack," he says. "It would be suicide for them within Republican Party."

Meanwhile, a movement desperate for inspiration beckons. "If you look at the inventory of the Republican Party in terms of paramount leaders, we don't have many giants," Lee says. "I was talking with one of [Palin's] people not too long ago, and she told me she had received thousands and thousands of invitations. You can see clearly the demand for the message she conveyed and will convey." Part of that demand comes from the fact that the base believes she's really one of them. If they're right, then maybe they offer the key to understanding her resignation. "She's not stepping down; she's stepping up," Lee insists. Crazy as it sounds, that could be how she sees it, too.