When a bar is set so low that even a tapeworm couldn’t limbo under it, stepping over it doesn’t necessarily constitute a victory. But such is the sorry state of political discourse in this country that Republicans feel the need to claim victory in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate essentially because their lightweight candidate, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, didn’t publicly soil herself.
Putting aside the ego-stroking need to claim victory over such a small matter when the rest of the house is burning down around them, what exactly did Palin accomplish on Thursday night anyway? If the goal was to up the cuteness quotient, mission accomplished. If it was to show that she has the gravitas to take on the role of vice presidency, then she’s going to need a little more dynamite, Butch, because there’s still a lot of boulders to move.
Palin was indeed cute in a way that the average high school cheerleader is cute. She also showed a decent capacity to memorize a few key concepts. But what she didn’t show and what she couldn’t show is that she has the underlying intellect to appreciate the depth of the issues she so casually tossed around like Frisbees being thrown in the commons on the campus of the University of Alaska-Anchorage (let’s give a shout-out to the Seawolves).
Perhaps gravitas and serious-mindedness is out of style these days. Certainly Washington, D.C. is filled with all manner of serious-minded individuals who lack either the political will or the common sense to accomplish much of anything, so holding them up as an example to live up to doesn’t get one very far. But the antidote isn’t Palin’s wackiness disguised as populism. The antidote is people with the intellectual capacity to appreciate the intricacies of the issues and the ability to implement workable solutions. Maybe Palin can get there someday, but that is not this day and it is not soon.
The issues with Palin go beyond just a lack of Washington-style experience. She lacks a certain worldliness in her views that can only be gained through life experiences. However noble her ability to juggle an expanding family with the legislative requirements of a state whose population is less than the city of Columbus, Ohio, it hardly substitutes for the kind of real-world experience that gets drawn on in moments of true crisis and not the kind of crisis over whether or not to fire the guy who won’t fire your ex-brother-in-law.
In answering a question Thursday about what promises she might find difficult to keep down the road, Palin unintentionally captured the essence of why any thinking individual should be offended by McCain’s choice of a running mate. She said “there is not [any promises], and how long have I been at this? Like five weeks?” Like, yea, five weeks, that’s, like, the point.. The sum total of her, like, experience on a, like, national stage thinking about, like, national issues and such is a mere five, like, weeks. But come another 30 days, there is a chance, dwindling though it may be, that the clock will strike midnight and this fairy tale she seems to be living will disappear and she’ll actually have to do something more than just memorize talking points that the McCain camp feeds her like vodka to an alcoholic. Did I mention that John McCain is a maverick?
Unquestionably, there is a decent slice of Americana that buys her “you betcha” Frances McDormand-in-Fargo act, but it hardly represents a healthy minority, let alone a majority. Given her near non-existent national profile just six weeks ago and how she’s been handcuffed by the McCain team since, her appeal to most Americans is still firmly entrenched in the curiosity phase, like the video of that poor Miss Teen U.S.A. contestant from South Carolina.
That’s why the debate was such a highly anticipated event. Certainly more than a few tuned in for the same reason they tune into a car race, they wanted to see a wreck. And to say Palin made a wreck of herself would be unfair. But simply having the ability to not embarrass yourself publicly shouldn’t be the new standard for picking a candidate in these troubling times, the McCain camps views notwithstanding.
What was disappointing about the debate wasn’t that Palin avoided answering questions she didn’t feel like answering, heck that was expected, It was that moderator Gwen Ifill let her get away with it. I’m not suggesting that Ifill should have picked on Palin, but neither should she have let her set the debate agenda by boldly saying which questions she would answer and which she would not.
The purpose of the debate was to answer the questions posed. Instead, Palin treated it as an annoyance, like Katie Couric, standing in the way of her ability to quickly and constantly attack Barack Obama in the manner outlined by the McCain operatives. Did you know he’s a liberal? Did I mention he’s going to raise taxes? Maybe that’s just immaturity and inexperience talking and at some point, maybe, Palin will learn how to stay on point while staying in context.
At this point, Palin’s fear of being exposed as a fraud is so overwhelming that she resigns herself to trotting out the increasingly hackneyed Republican talking point, utilized initially to great affect by George W. Bush, that the “mainstream media” is the enemy, seeking to filter as it does all her great thoughts. So she changes the subject. Drill baby drill.
What’s humorous and sad is how many folks seem to nod in agreement to this cynical brand of populism without even appreciating the alternative. Until each and every person who wants to ask a question is actually granted an audience with the candidate, the mainstream media will have to be serve as our proxy. It exists precisely to protect our freedoms. They aren’t a filter, far from it. They are a means to an end that protects us from those who seek power on the backs of others’ ignorance. Palin claimed that the extremists hate us because of our freedoms without even having the decency to appreciate the irony of her little range war with the most fundamental way in which that freedom is protected, an open press.
To this point Palin, thankfully, isn’t getting much of a bounce from the debate. She may have shored up a few of the leaks in her base that have started to spring up here and there, but it’s likely only temporary. Slowly, methodically and thankfully the book on Palin is getting written, with or without her cooperation. Tina Fey is enjoying unprecedented popularity for her dead-on in her portrayal of the ditzy Palin, but, ironically it’s Palin and not Fey that really is the Not Ready for Primetime Player in this ongoing tragicomedy.