The Palin Potential

I haven’t blogged about Sarah Palin for a while, but all the talk of late has put me in a vaguely philosophical mood about her. Plus, I’ve figured out a way to tie her into one of my favorite fields — naval warfare — so I figure it’s about time I said something.

Of late, Palin has been doing a lot of things that have gotten a bit of attention for being… well, candidatey, for lack of a better word. She’s apparently buying a house in Arizona. (Considering the differing climes between Alaska and Arizona, it’s clear that she’s an Extremist for Climate Change.) (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) She’s going on a tour of some key primary/caucus states in a bus that looks an awful lot like a presidential campaign bus. She’s recruiting advisers and staffers with skills that would be very helpful on a campaign. And so on.

But she’s not declaring, not talking about declaring, not even talking about the race.

To me, it’s clear what she’s doing:

She’s keeping her options open.

To any student of naval warfare, even one as amateur as I am, one parallel comes immediately to mind: Palin is acting pretty much exactly as the German navy did in both world wars — her potential candidacy is her fleet in being.

During World War I, the German navy was vastly inferior to the British. In many ways, their ships were better, but the British had numbers, skill, and experience on their side. An open confrontation between the two was considered a tossup, with the odds favoring the British — but not overwhelmingly so.

The British, in order to keep the Germans in check, had to keep a much larger force on hand near the North Sea just in case the Germans sailed out. And the Germans didn’t have to build a fleet superior to the British to tie down that much larger force — keeping the British from sending reinforcements to the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, or anywhere else.

Finally, the Germans did sortie, and the two fleets met at the Battle of Jutland. There, the Germans won — on paper. But the British, despite suffering staggering losses, turned back the Germans and kept control of the North Sea. The German fleet never ventured forth again.

In World War II, the German navy was even more inferior to the British. But it had two big, fairly modern battleships that kept the British very nervous — the Bismarck and the Tirpitz.

When the Bismarck went forth on its maiden voyage, with only a heavy cruiser for an escort, the British threw everything they had at it. And in the Denmark Straits, the Germans found themselves facing the Prince Of Wales, a brand-new battleship, and the legendary battlecruiser Hood. Again, on paper, the British were superior. They should have won.

But they didn’t. The Prince Of Wales limped off battered, and the Hood was sunk — destroyed in a massive explosion that left four survivors.

The British, stunned, went back to the cupboard and found even more forces to throw into the fray. Two aircraft carriers, three more battleships, and one more battlecruiser — with all their support vessels — hunted the German dreadnought. And they finally sent her to the bottom.

To sink that one German battleship, the British had to use four battleships (Prince of Wales, King George V, Rodney, and Ramillies), two battlecruisers (Hood and Renown), and two aircraft carriers (Victorious and Ark Royal) — along with their aforementioned support vessels.

The Bismarck’s sister ship, the Tirpitz, had nowhere near the storied history as Bismarck, but still tied up a hefty chunk of the Royal Navy until she was finally sunk — by bombs from the Royal Air Force. In fact, just the rumor that she had left port was enough to cause great harm — one convoy scattered when they were told (falsely) that the Tirpitz was on the prowl, and the Germans took full advantage of the ensuing chaos. In a sense, the Tirpitz was responsible for the loss of 24 of 35 ships in that convoy without doing a single thing.

In a similar vein, Palin’s political power is tremendous — but almost entirely potential. It is the very uncertainty of what she will do, what role she will play, what goal she will commit herself to — if any — that makes her such a potent force. The instant she commits to running, supporting another, or sitting on the sidelines, her power will be greatly diminished.

So there is no reason for her to jump. She’s a powerful force as she stands, and has to do very little to preserve that power. Indeed, she best preserves her power by doing very, very little — not too little, but far more dangerously, not too much.

Which seems to be what she’s doing.

Years ago, I read something that stuck in my mind. The root meaning of the word “decide” is “to kill.” When one decides, one kills off options, possibilities, and potentials.

There are no pluses for Palin to kill off her options at this point, and tremendous pluses in keeping all her options open. Her ambiguity is her political fleet in being, and she would be wise to preserve that power as long as possible.

Which seems to be pretty much what she’s doing.

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