POLITICS SEPTEMBER 19, 2008
Ever since John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, I’ve gotten confused about all the reasons I’m supposed to dislike Barack Obama. The previous reasons, in rough chronological order, were his lack of experience, his empty rhetoric, his flip-flopping, and his “celebrity.” But Palin has made each one of those critiques moot. The “celebrity” attack on Obama has a particularly Dada quality right now as starstruck Republicans bask in the charisma of their adorable veep. (Coldest state, hottest governor, read signs at her rallies.) With her hunky husband, touching family life and plucky personal story, she is the candidate of the People. And by People, I mean People magazine.
The flip side for Republicans of losing most of their attack lines was supposed to be a series of virtues Palin would bring to the ticket: She’s a reformer, a steadfast opponent of earmarks, a proponent of transparency and clean government. Subsequent reporting has revealed that Palin embodies the precise opposite of every one of these virtues. She appointed unqualified cronies, abused her power to punish personal enemies, and has displayed a Cheney-esque passion for government secrecy. Her boast of having put the state airplane on eBay was undermined by subsequent revelations that she failed to actually sell it on eBay.
The swift disintegration of Palin’s anti-pork credentials has been especially amusing. After initially casting Palin as a dedicated foe of earmarks, and then having it revealed that she asked for and received enormous sums of earmarked projects, the McCain campaign has fallen back to the defense that she requested fewer earmarks than other Alaska pols. This is true: Even though Palin took ten times the national per capita average in earmarked spending, in this regard she still rates somewhat below average by the standards of the petro-kleptocracy of the state from which she hails. Yet this defense raises the question of why Ted Kennedy never thought to run for president on the slogan “He Never Took a Drink In His Life,” and then, when challenged, point out that other members of his family are less sober than he.
The main complaint against Palin has been her lack of experience. That’s fortunate for her, since “experience”--especially measured in a linear way--fails to capture exactly what Palin lacks. Yes, two years as governor is less than you’d like, as is four years as senator. The real problem, though, is that Palin has no record of thinking about national or international policy. Bobby Jindal, another Republican veep contender, has barely more experience than Palin, but he is a respected policy intellectual. Pat Buchanan ran for president without ever having served in elective office, but he had engaged more deeply than most presidential candidates in policy questions.
Engagement, not experience, is the difference between Palin’s qualifications and Obama’s. Obama has a longstanding interest in national and (to a lesser extent) international issues, and has answered questions on all those issues in extensive detail. Palin has dealt almost exclusively with parochial issues in a wildly atypical state. (Her fiscal experience, which consists of divvying up oil lucre, offers better preparation to serve as president of Saudi Arabia than the United States.) It’s possible Palin has harbored a long-standing, secret passion for policy wonkery, but the few signs available thus far--her convention speech that spelled out “new-clear weapons,” her evident lack of familiarity with the term “Bush Doctrine”--suggest otherwise. The Republican intelligentsia is frantically tutoring her while they run out the clock until November 4.
In lieu of opening Palin to regular questioning from the press corps, of the sort the other three candidates have all undergone many times before, the McCain campaign is helpfully leaking positive appraisals of her studiousness. “Despite the worries, [Palin] struck many campaign officials as more calm and cerebral than expected,” reported Newsweek. “She was quick to ask questions, and to ‘engage in a back and forth’ with briefers.” See, the McCain campaign says she’s on the ball. That settles it, right?
But, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, this admiring appraisal of the prospective veep’s intellect struck a familiar chord. With a quick search, I discovered that, indeed, the same was said of Dan Quayle in 1988. Twenty years ago, The Washington Post reported, “Bush aides, who were getting their first in-depth exposure to Quayle, were impressed by his attention span, the quality of his questions and the facility with which he moved through the agenda.”
Other parallels stood out as well. Conservatives received Quayle’s selection rapturously. L. Brent Bozell pronounced himself “ecstatic,” and Jerry Falwell called the surprise pick “a stroke of genius.” After a media frenzy, Quayle’s speech was well-received. The convention hall burst into cheers of “We want Dan!” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said that Quayle executed “flawlessly,” and CBS’s Bruce Morton called it “a good speech.”
Questions about Quayle’s readiness remained, but he did his best to turn them into elite condescension toward small town America. Quayle, in his acceptance speech, spoke movingly about the small towns in Indiana where he had grown up, and later disparaged Dukakis for “sneer[ing] at common sense advice, Midwestern advice.”
Today, Quayle is remembered as a disaster. But, during the campaign, his supporters believed that media skepticism of Quayle had rallied ordinary Americans to his side. Dukakis “looks down on his fellow Americans. He looks down on Bush and Dan Quayle as--in his word--‘pathetic,’ ” wrote right-wing columnist Michael Novak. “Thus, the ‘feeding frenzy’ of the press in New Orleans stirred a national backlash. It united all the scorned of America as one.”
Conservatives are saying the same things about Palin. “Elite opinion,” insisted McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, “looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world.” As Palin herself said, “If you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.” To the right, the mere fact that the press questions her fitness proves that she is one of them.
As the original rationales for Palin melt away, this bond has become unshakable. Her lack of qualifications turns out to be her greatest qualification.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.