Saturday, October 4, 2008

Maybe Proud is Too Strong a Word?

Not twelve hours after Governor Palin's unexpectedly passable performance in Thursday night's debate, those of us who'd gone out of our way to be gracious, even wax just a little prideful at a self-evidently overmatched opponent's capacity to buck-up under extraordinary pressure, were rewarded with a reprise of the kinds of behavior that had us calling her names in the first place. In short order yesterday, she blasted Barack Obama for a fact-checked statement about our ineffectual efforts in Afghanistan, she orchestrated a move by a handful of Republican legislators in Alaska trying once again to quash the Troopergate investigation, she released personal income tax returns showing that she'd failed to report her 2006 and 2007 per diem payments for the days she spent "working" out of her home, and, perhaps most infuriating to those progressives who'd felt a small sense of ownership in her sudden recovery, she blamed her recent and disastrous interview performances on Katie Couric:

I did feel there were a lot of things she was missing in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are that are represented in our ticket. I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also, and just wanting to talk to Americans without the filter and let them know what we stand for.

...Which, if you're keeping score at home, folks, translates as, "I don't think I should have to answer anyone else's questions, in order to have access to the national television audience."

In the cold light of a second morning's reflection on the matter, it is indeed much more obvious than it was at the time that Governor Palin's performance in the debate itself was a ninety-minute macrocosm of this same principle: Say only that which you want to say, regardless of what you've been asked or whether it fits the moment or even whether it's coherent--and then celebrate yourself for it, as someone who bucks the "media filter" in order to speak "directly to the American people." Here, for example, is the full transcript of her answer to the question Gwyn Ifil posed about the two campaigns' competing education policies:

Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced [sic] your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate.

...To borrow a phrase from Jack Cafferty, uh, did you get that? Twice during the debate--once near the beginning and once at the very end--Governor Palin flaunted her refusal to abide by the structure to which she had formally and demonstrably agreed. "I may be a Washington outsider," she said in the early minutes when the question didn't fit one of her note-cards, "I may not answer the questions exactly the way [my opponent] or the moderator wants me to, but I'm gonna speak from the heart and straight to the American people." And then, at the end of the debate, a reprieve of this undoubtedly focus-group tested line, just in case we missed it the first time: "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter ... of the mainstream media kinda telling viewers what they just heard. I'd rather just be able to speak to the American people."

That this argument hasn't scored an overwhelmingly positive response from the persuadable middle is a rare (or at least seemingly rare) testimony to that cohort's capacity to proscribe--or at least to diagnose--bullshit. Nobody who saw the Katie Couric interviews really thought that it was Katie Couric's fault that Sarah Palin was unable to name a single print-media source, a single example of her boss calling for increased oversight, or a single Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade. The debate-trackers showed this, their lines plunging more-or-less every time Ms. Palin opened her mouth, and the polls afterward showed it, with undecided respondents favoring Biden by 5-3 margins.

This is good news, surely--but it portends a frustrating week for progressives like this author, specifically because the Obama/Biden ticket is wise enough to approach such matters with a cool head and a decidedly under-played hand. If I can tell, from an un-dusted home office in Gainesville, Florida, that the general public didn't buy the Sarah Palin, one-person-show version of Hee-Haw, then surely Team Blue has access to a far richer battery of polling data, undoubtedly showing internals that point to letting her inflict the damage on herself, so as not to give her the cover of being attacked by supposed "sexists." To the rest of us, watching her grin smugly and pat herself on the back for banging away on this "straight to the American people" nonsense, it will appear as though she has gotten away with it. And that will be very frustrating, if it isn't already.

But one other thing happened yesterday that intimately involves Sarah Palin, and it is this last news story that, I believe, raises the most serious questions about the Alaska Governor and her personal character: It was announced yesterday afternoon that Palin had openly disagreed with the McCain campaign's decision to withdraw from Michigan. "Aw, do we have to?" was her e-mail response, when told of the news by a campaign understudy. (And entirely by the way, we seem to be left to our own speculations as to where exactly McCain's supposed partner and confidant was, when this fateful decision was actually getting made.)

If the charge that Palin isn't smart enough to do the job seems only to resonate with those of us who are smart enough to care (Bob Herbert of the New York Times on Friday called her the "human exclamation point") the charge that she is ruthlessly ambitious is one that the McCain team would be well-advised to take into far more serious consideration--both because it has greater potential to resonate with the public, and because it could be the catalytic event in the final public undoing of their candidate at the top of the ticket. Few of my friends missed Governor Palin's reference to making the Vice Presidency more powerful (after claiming, somewhat bizarrely, to be versed enough on the Constitution to know that this could be the case if only the rest of us wanted it), and if the McCain people didn't sit straight up in their chairs at that undoubtedly off-the-script remark, then they certainly should have.

In the room where I was watching, none of us could supress the groan--but I daresay the undecided voter out there in TV-land "got it," too: The combination of spikey proficiency on energy issues, together with a desire to see a far more powerful office of Vice President, will undoubtedly strike all but the lowest of l0w-information voters as a refrain just a little too familiar for comfort. The McCain people would do well to rein Ms. Palin in on this unusually touchy subject, before the comparisons from unfriendly columnists stop being about the first President Bush's running-mate, and start being about the second.

Perhaps even more to the point, they would be wise to undertake a full and uncensored vetting of the Governor's motives for bundling these two statements--the desire to enhance the power of the Vice Preisdency, on the one hand, and the apparent confidence to openly disagree with the campaign about major strategic decisions, on the other.

This is, after all, a public figure who is only public outside of Wasilla, Alaska, as a result of a long train of intra-party fights to the death, in which her folksy manner and good looks concealed a willingness to stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Palin burned bridges to get her spot on the primary ballot for Lieutenant Governor in 2002 and then, when she went down to defeat, burned even more of them to land the Oil and Gas commission. The instant it became hers, she launched herself into a full-frontal attack on the man who'd given it to her, on the basis that the position itself was a waste of public trust--ultimately running against him in a primary fight to become Governor, apparently on the basis that the previous occupant had been foolish enough to hire her. And by the way, don't laugh: it worked.

Fast-forward to early October of 2008, and the same Sarah Palin--the woman whom Team Crankypants takes such delight in calling "Sarah Barracuda"--is now openly questioning her bosses once again, and nobody inside the campaign is minding? Authors far more seasoned at these dynamics than I have already speculated that Palin has privately conceded the outcome of this contest and is now positioning herself to claim that she'd have managed the whole thing differently, when she herself runs for President in 2012. If those analysts are correct, and there is no reason to assume that they aren't from Palin's resume, then it seems a short throw from questioning McCain's decision on Michigan, to questioning McCain himself.

The ticket is, of course, already almost beyond saving anyway: Fivethirtyeight is not yet calling New Hampshire for Obama but will do so when the late-breaking polls from yesterday are integrated into their regressions--a development that will put Obama on 273 without Virginia, Ohio, Florida, or Nevada, in all of which he is leading by slightly smaller margins. The question of the hour might not be whether or not Palin herself can undo her benefactor's chances of electoral success: he may not still have any to undo. But if Governor Palin is, indeed, trying to recycle a familiar and proven formula for self-promotion at the expense of others in her own party, then the true blunder of McCain's less than thorough vetting of her will only be apparent after the fact.

And wouldn't that be the most delicious irony of all? That, after all these weeks in which progressives like The Key Grip were savagely criticizing Palin for being too stupid to be Vice President, the fatal undoing of McCain and his party could end up being that she wasn't quite stupid enough?

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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