Sarah Palin and exceeding expectations

By David T. Jones on September 18, 2008

On November 3, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin accepted the Republican nomination for Vice President.  Her selection on August 31 by Senator John McCain had prompted a tsunami of "Sarah Who?" instant analysis. 

A 44-year old, mother of five with limited electoral/executive responsibility, she was even less known than Senator Joseph Biden from tiny Delaware whose 30 years in Washington had resulted in experience that was largely applauded "inside the beltway."

Having totally baffled the predictions of all prognosticators, she simply had to be the wrong choice.  The warts on her once-upon-a-time beauty queen appeal were instant revelations, particularly the unwed pregnancy of her 17 year-old daughter.  Republicans were faced with an attempt to make lemonade from this lemon blossom. 

Prior to her speech, there was a rather grim circle-the-wagons defensiveness by Republicans.  Apprehensive convention delegates were in a put-a-good-face-on-it stance.  Nor was the "family portrait" behind her anything like the Republican stereotype standard:  union member husband; son about to be deployed to Iraq; pregnant daughter with gum-chewing swain-to-be (and no evidence of the father's shotgun); and the youngest daughter often holding her Downs-syndrome afflicted 4-month old brother, occasionally smoothing his hair.

She was all set up for failure.  The critics had written their leads:  a "beauty contest" winner stumbling over her script; someone to be "pitied" because she was "out of her depth" (and thus proving that her inexperience would be fatal in every dimension).  They anticipated that, at best, she would be flat—"overwhelmed by the moment" and a semi-paralyzed "deer in the headlights" from the exposure of speaking to a national audience far larger than the population of her state.

They got something far different:  a smiling tigress (with a good speech writer) willing to put new twists into a personalized campaign.  Hers was a clear riposte to Obama's contemptuous August 28 comments about McCain—and a reminder that the denizens of glass houses throw stones at their peril.  And having received more than a few brickbats through her "windows," she responded in kind.  She put the focus on McCain's courage, sacrifice, leadership, and independence—making the implicitly brutal point that he is the only one who has actually fought for his country.  Wielding a sarcastic stiletto, she twitted Obama's self-adulation (two biographies; no legislation) and paper thin record (suggesting that a community organizer was like a small town mayor [as she was] but without responsibility).

Her articulate cleverness doesn't add an ounce to her "weight" in foreign relations or national security affairs—an almost "unbearable lightness."  There is no question that, from the perspective of a career diplomat who spent most of his adult life engaged in foreign policy/ national security, Sarah Palin has essentially no/no credentials in these areas.  That troubles one—and would be defining disqualification were she running for president.  (In honesty, the virtual absence of such experience regarding Obama also troubles all except the totally partisan.)

Nor does the much touted reputation of Senator Joe Biden as a foreign affairs expert compute—unless your computations are those of ritualistic liberals.  For example, Biden voted against U.S. action to liberate Kuwait; voted for the Iraq war; and then against the "Surge"—an indicative trifecta of error.  And garnering about 9,000 votes in the Democratic primaries versus Hillary Clinton's 18 million is a measure of his electoral popularity.

Potentially she offers McCain a threefer:  fer independence highlights McCain's independent, "beyond party" streak and helps move past charges that he is "Bush III"; her lack of experience highlights Obama's own relative lack of experience; she seems to be a post-feminist woman —comfortable simultaneously with being feminine, motherly, and professional. 

Governor Palin in some respects could be a Canadian woman, comfortable in Whitehorse or Yellowknife; she is certainly closer to the tough, smart, practical women "north of 60" who do not swoon at the sight of a rifle, know that food doesn't come in Saran-wrapped grocery store packages, and appreciate that there is life 100 meters beyond Parliament Hill. 

But in the end, if the Veep choices are largely irrelevant; it is the voter judgment of McCain and Obama that is determinative.  You know that McCain won't break; won't panic; and won't quit.  He has bottom line principles for which he would quite literally die than abandon.  Such may also be true for Obama, but it is still to be revealed.  This is going to be a very unpleasant two months; the Republicans could run a perfect campaign—but the Democrats still have to work very hard to lose. Still, by not stumbling over the first hurdle, Palin has kept Republicans in the race.


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