Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The perils of Palin

The challenge of being Sarah Palin just got more challenging. Among the conservatives who championed her, there is throughout the land great lamentation regarding the Alaska governor and cyberspace Photoshop punching bag who squares off against Sen. Joe Biden in the first and only vice-presidential debate on Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal today reported that Palin was underwhelming in two mock debates conducted this week. And CBS is reportedly planning to air another Palin interview with Katie Couric, one in which Palin responded to a question seeking one decision by the United States Supreme Court with complete and utter silence.

It’s full-time battle stations on the dreadnought McCain; the rudder is missing and the captain’s idea of magnetic north changes from day to day.

Palin is huddling with McCain for three days of debate preparation at one of McCain’s thirty-seven homes in Arizona. There’s already a call from some old hands in both the GOP and the Bush administration who are calling for a new strategy: Let Sarah Be Sarah. William Kristol, writing in The New York Times, said she’d been overprepared before her disastrous first interview with Katie Couric of CBS News.

“Thanks to the mainstream media, quite a low expectation has been created for her performance,” Ron Carey, chairman of Minnesota’s Republican Party, told Adam Nagourney of The New York Times “The style of Sarah Palin is going to amaze people. She is going to be able to amaze people with the substance she is going to deliver.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For reasons the media has nothing to do with, the expectations for Palin right now are so low, she could stand at the podium drooling and speaking in Aramaic and be declared a nominal success. The McCain campaign has been soldiering on regardless, combining debate prep and carefully doled-out interviews and photo ops in the hopes of building affinity with low- and no-information voters for whom intellect is something not to be trusted — the same anti-intellectual cohort of the American people that got George Bush elected twice.

But it can’t be misunderstood: No matter how much debate prep Sarah Palin successfully completes between now and Thursday —— the fact remains that the McCain campaign is attempting to impart years of wisdom, or at least knowledge, to a candidate in literally days and weeks. Maybe Team McCain hopes to do with Palin what Morpheus did with Neo, the central character in “The Matrix,” who actually gets lifetimes of knowledge of the martial arts uploaded directly into his cerebellum.

They’re gonna need it: Chris Hayes of The Nation said Monday on “Countdown” that Palin’s pre-debate briefing book is 600 pages long.

There’s a rising tide of opposition to Palin from unlikely places. Conservative columnists have turned on her, including such right-wing stalwarts as George Will, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker, who pilloried Palin in a National Review Online column titled “She’s Out of Her League.” For them and for others, Palin’s shortcomings herald a grim scenario for events on Thursday night.

◊ ◊ ◊

The contrarian aspect of the ‘Vox would beg to differ. Purely for the sake of argument, the ‘Vox makes a forecast right now: Against all odds, Sarah Palin won’t tank on Thursday. She will turn in a workwomanlike performance that will neither enlighten nor embarrass. It won’t be a home run but it will be perceived as a respectable slide into second base (a decent showing from someone who shouldn’t be in the batter’s box in the first place).

The press will call her “charming,” “disarming,” “loose,” “affable.” Some will say she “more than held her own.” Some in the conservative press will go so far as to say Palin has “turned the corner.” Count on Fox News to call it the biggest comeback since Lazarus.

The basic problem is that it will change no game.

Her lack of foreign policy bona fides will still be there, her lack of command about the specifics of domestic affairs, the economy and the positions of her own running mate will still be there. If Sarah Palin suddenly morphs into Stephen Douglas on Thursday, it won’t fundamentally alter the narrative building around her, that of a refreshingly plain-spoken but intellectually one-dimensional nominee for the vice presidency — someone the Republicans would skewer relentlessly for lack of experience if Sarah Palin were the Democratic choice for vice president.

Something else complicates the situation. If Palin turns in a strong performance on Thursday, it will raise the expectations game considerably. If Palin Holds Her Own in the debate, one of those justifiable expectations will come from the press corps. If she can stand toe to toe with Joe Biden, the press’ reasoning will go, she can go one-on-one with pundits, journalists and the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti of the blogosphere. No more joint interviews with McCain as mouthpiece. No more First Dude whispering sweet advisories in her ear. Pressure on her to perform will increase once she’s shown she’s able to perform.

Ironically, and given the McCain campaign’s penchant for control, a strong outing by Palin on Thursday may be more of a problem than a poor one.

◊ ◊ ◊

The phenomenon of political meteorics is a fleeting thing. Sometimes seemingly incandescent talents make a big bright splash into the culture, but they’re not so strong on follow-through in the intensity of a national campaign. It happened to Michael Dukakis and Dan Quayle and even Howard Dean, and it’s happening now to Sarah Palin. Only worse.

Those candidates had the benefit of experience and perspective. In Palin’s case, the outsized personality and novel personal story that fascinated the nation in the short term have given way to a political persona with the depth of a roadside billboard.

Sarah Palin may just pull a Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart rabbit out of her hat. She may bring ‘em to their feet at Washington University in St. Louis. But the candidate with a love of the call of the wild, the avid hunter of moose and caribou faces the real possibility Thursday of hearing another wild species: the sound of crickets in the room.
Image credit: Palin: Official Alaska portrait. The Matrix poster: © 1999 Warner Bros. Palin Nowhere: Bob Weinstein, Mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license 2.0


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