First, let's get the preliminaries cleared out of the way. A week ago, Sarah Palin was never going to be president of the United States. Today, Sarah Palin is never going to be president of the United States. Once you've accepted that fact (although it's not clear that Palin herself has), the political impact of this decision is minimal -- the Republicans as a party look even a little flakier than before (bad for the GOP, but what else is new?), the chattering classes bloviate for a weekend (at least they can lay off Michael Jackson for a bit), and the citizens of Alaska get Sean Parnell as governor for the next 18 months rather than Palin (probably an entry in the plus column), but that's about it.
What Palin's announcement really signifies is the final link in the chain confirming voters' choices across the board in last November's elections. Let's review.
President Obama was elected because he was smart, good on policy, and would bring hope to a dispirited country. He's performed exactly as advertised, with the single exception of his banking policy, which has been far more timid than circumstances warrant. But on the stimulus plan, the budget plan, his attack on health care, the environment and other issues, Obama has been forthright, substantive, and probably more politically savvy than would have been anticipated.
Joe Biden was too gaffe-prone to be president, but he got the VP nod because he was good on foreign policy and had good congressional connections. Sure enough, he's had his verbal challenges as VP ("If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong."), but he's been rock solid on Iran and played a key intermediary role in persuading Arlen Specter to jump ship and become a Democrat.
Democrats gained seats in the House and (now, thanks to Biden) a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate because they were seen as more willing and able to work seriously on the problems facing the country. Here again the public was right -- the Democrats are making tough policy choices and even playing their role as a check on the administration, especially in economic and financial policy, while the Republicans have become not just an ineffectual out-of-power party, but a parody of an ineffectual out-of-power party, spouting mean-sounding nonsense on major policy issues ("Government spending doesn't work!" "There is no such thing as global warming!" "Hunger is a good motivator!"), and taking hypocrisy in their personal lives to new levels of self-indulgent weirdness ("It wasn't just an affair, it was a love story!"). It's as if they're trying to get a head start on another 40 years in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, John McCain, whose one area of expertise was supposed to be foreign policy, went off the rail criticizing Obama's supposedly too-timid approach to Iran. I thought Republicans were supposed to understand the subtleties of international relations. We have zero influence in Iran now, and any statements we would have made in the days following the election would have been played into the Mullahs' hands, allowing them to blame the resulting violence on outside interference (as they tried to do anyway, but with zero justification) and deflect attention away from the fact that the government just stole an election. McCain's blundering about, saying that we should have "done more" reminds one of his rush back to Washington to save the economy or somesuch last October, and confirms once again that he does not have the temperament to be president.
And now, finally, Palin has done what weak, self-centered people do when the going gets tough -- they quit and blame someone else. Maybe there really was a scandal brewing, but more likely she couldn't stand the heat and was tired of being in the kitchen. Of all her lame-brained excuses, the one I like best may have been when she said that "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!" I think of this as the "Stop me before I take another junket" defense -- Palin, only 2 ½ years into her job, fears that she would be unable to stop herself from sloughing off, doing a half-ass job and forcing taxpayers to support her habit of flying around the world, so she had no alternative but to quit now and spare everyone more pain. The idea that she could have actually worked hard for another year and a half and done the job she was elected to do seems to be a non-starter.
But Palin's decision disappointed a lot of her supporters and even casual observers (my 9-year old daughter, rather out-of-the-blue, said "I didn't think she was a quitter, or a resigner"). She may well end up happier this way; she can make money on her book deal, give lots of speeches, and maybe even found a populist-PAC, supporting Republican candidates whom she approves of and be a player within party politics. But she will never hold elected office again, and voters can rest a bit easier with that knowledge, and the knowledge that they chose wisely in all respects last year.