Monday, October 13, 2008

The Case Against Sarah Palin

When John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate I was fairly ecstatic. I imagine that unlike most people I had actually heard of Sarah Palin, with most of what I knew a result of this Weekly Standard article from summer 2007. The article painted a near glowing picture of the governor as someone that was committed to taking on Alaska's corrupt Republican establishment and paring government spending. I also knew that she didn't seem on board with the gay-bashing, which to me suggested a possible libertarian bent. Sounded good to me.

In addition to what I knew about her I found myself increasingly drawn to the woman as the attacks from the left became more vicious and shrill. With most of the attacks based on her alleged inexperience I found them hypocritical in the extreme given Obama's own thin resume. Indeed, the ire against her grew even more red hot when she tossed this bon mot into her convention speech:
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

I wanted to withhold final judgment, however, until I could hear Palin speak for herself. I anxiously awaited a well articulated vision from a relatively young conservative woman of how to approach many of America's problems and her overall philosophy on government. Perhaps the first sign that she was not the finished product, or even a product that belonged on the shelves, was during her interview with Katie Couric:
COURIC: Why isn't it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries; allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

PALIN: That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.
This is truly embarrassing. The answer is incomprehensible and nothing more than a group of talking points thrown together. It reveals either a high level of ignorance, an inability to think on one's feet, or both. It's simply gibberish that is unbecoming of being a heartbeat away from the presidency.

If this was an isolated case that would be one thing, but her performance in the vice presidential debate gave me little reason to think that this was a one-off. Her rehearsed talking points when confronted with unfamiliar subject material suggests deep gulfs in her knowledge while folksy statements strike me as a pander to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps this is just me, but I don't want to elect someone that makes me think, "Hey, he/she is one of us." I'd prefer someone better than myself that makes me glad it is them in charge and not me. Too often during this race I don't feel that way.

Granted, Palin has not been in the race as long as McCain, Obama or Biden and thus hasn't been wrestling with the issues as long, but I am not sure how much an excuse this is. After all, the financial crisis and bailout was a new issue for everyone. What the answer -- as well as her debate performance and other statements -- reveal to me is that Palin, who is 44 years of age, doesn't appear to have spent a great deal of time contemplating some of the more pressing issues facing this country. She simply doesn't appear to be fluent in a number of important public policy areas.

Now, reading over the transcript of the interview, I did get the feeling that Couric had it out for Palin, and was in desperate search of a "gotcha" moment. But so what? It's the media, what do you expect? If you can't handle Katie Couric how can you handle the White House?

I am also sympathetic to the argument that you can learn on the job and you don't have to be an expert on everything. That is true. Ronald Reagan for all of his virtues probably didn't have an intricately nuanced understanding of every issue that ever came before him. But he did have a basic governing philosophy and understanding about the role of government that helped guide his decisions. I can discern no such philosophy when it comes to Palin (McCain appears to roughly subscribe to "national greatness" conservatism and has a stated affinity for Teddy Roosevelt).

Perhaps such questions can be brushed aside somewhat given that she is running for the vice presidency and not the Oval Office, and what really matters is the content of her character. But even here I am increasingly downbeat on the Palin brand with the recent "troopergate" report certainly making her out to be no angel. You also have to question her small government credentials given her wishy-washy opposition to the bridge to nowhere, her seeming support for another bridge to nowhere, and her support for a referendum to raise taxes during her time as mayor of Wasilla.

I'm hardly the first person on the political right to raise questions about Palin, which David Brooks -- who I think a great deal of -- recently labeling her "a fatal cancer" to the Republican Party. Perhaps more disturbingly Christopher Hitchens has gone sour on the Alaskan:
The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: "What does he take me for?" Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed.
Yeesh. And this is from a guy that voted for George W. Bush and has almost literally made a living out of needling the left for cowardice in the face of Islamic totalitarianism.

Perhaps the canary in the coal mine was when shortly after the Palin announcement I saw that Heather McDonald criticized the move as an appeal to identity politics. Identity politics, of course, is when you select a person based on what they outwardly represent rather than the content of their character. Maybe McDonald was on to something.

Update: To be clear, this is not a condemnation of Sarah Palin as a person, rather simply that she is perhaps not the great hope many people may have been seeking. She seems a fine governor, but perhaps that is where she should remain. Also, unlike Hitchens, this is not an endorsement of the Obama/Biden ticket.

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