Is Palin likely to belly flop?

In a cogently argued piece, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek says flatly that McCain’s “choice for veep is all but set up for failure in the fall,” because she is simply not prepared to discuss national issues at the presidential level. Here are excerpts:

It’s not her lack of name recognition; America loves a fresh face, especially one that’s a cross between a Fox anchor and a character on “Northern Exposure,” the old TV show about an Alaska town about the size of Wasilla. The problem is that politics, like all professions, isn’t as easy as it looks. Palin’s odds of emerging unscathed this fall are slim. In fact, she’s been all but set up for failure.

… Palin knows the energy crisis well, even if her claim on “Charlie Rose” that Alaska’s untapped resources can significantly ease it is unsupported by the facts. But what does she know about Iranian nukes, health care or the future of entitlement programs? And that’s just a few of the 20 or so national issues on which she will be expected to show basic competence. The McCain camp will have to either let her wing it based on a few briefing memos (highly risky) or prevent her from taking questions from reporters (a confession that she’s unprepared). Either way, she’s going to belly-flop at a time when McCain can least afford it.

… Governors often run for president, but only after many months of prep work on what they might confront in the White House. The last governor chosen for vice president was Spiro Agnew in 1968, and he was the governor of Maryland, which is right over the line from Washington, D.C., not thousands of miles away. Veep candidates with extensive Washington experience like Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were nonetheless grilled on policy and proved a drag on the ticket when they looked unpresidential….

It’s hard to know how many women will flock to the GOP ticket because of Palin. She is a far-right conservative who supported Pat Buchanan over George W. Bush in 2000. She thinks global warming is a hoax and backs the teaching of creationism in public schools. Women are not likely to be impressed by her opposition to abortion even in the case of rape and incest. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 56 percent of female voters, despite Ferraro’s candidacy on the Democratic side. The balance between work and family, always a ticklish issue, will be brought into bold relief by the fact that the Palins’ fifth child, Trig, was born with Down syndrome in April. Todd Palin, a commercial fisherman, may shoulder the bulk of the child-rearing duties in their family. But many voters will nonetheless wonder whether Palin should undertake the rigors of the vice presidency (and perhaps the presidency) while caring for a disabled infant. The subject will no doubt arise on “Oprah” and in other venues.

[I]t’s possible that Palin is so talented that she will prove to be the face of the GOP’s future. More likely, this “Hail Sarah” pass won’t do much to help John McCain get into the end zone. He’ll win or lose for other reasons.

Notice that Alter does not say that Palin’s predicted belly flop will bring McCain down. He couldn’t say that, because one of his examples of an insufficiently competent vice presidential candidate, Dan Quayle, was elected to the vice presidency.

But is Alter right in his main point, that Palin will prove unable to discuss national issues competently? And if he is, what will that say about the judgment of all the conservatives who have been gushing about her and saying she’s the future of the GOP and the country?

One possible answer is that even if Alter is right, and Palin only limps her way through national interviews, the McCain-Palin ticket still wins the election, Palin’s competence continues to grow in the areas where she is presently (presumably) lacking, and that her increased assurance, combined with her political talent and principles, makes her into the leading conservative figure that many conservatives now see her as being.

There are of course other possibilities.

Palin rises to the occasion and blows everyone away, and McCain’s choice is revealed as inspired.

Or, Palin is exposed as being completely out of her depth, the ticket loses, and the gushing conservatives are embarrassed and humiliated.

But I don’t see the latter scenario happening. This woman is not anything like Geraldine Ferraro, a moderately intelligent (and relatively moderate) liberal Democrat, with a breezy, professional demeanor, but otherwise without any particular distinction and also apparently lacking the weight to handle national security issues. My sense of Palin—and this is admittedly based on nothing but first impressions and intuitions and could turn out to be completely wrong—is that she is an original personality, talented and smart, and that, far from having nothing to say, she has a formed view of the world which she can readily draw on and which will carry her through interviews and other public appearances even when she is less than fully conversant with the details of the issues at hand.

I am not invested in the above prediction, which, as I said, is based on nothing but an intuition. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But something told me to say it, so I’m saying it.

(By the way, when I speak of having intuitions, as I do from time to time, I do not mean some notion that just pops into one’s head from some unknown source and that one cannot explain. I mean the sense that one is seeing something. The “seeing” may turn out to be mistaken, and often it is mistaken, just as more conventional and respectable forms of knowing often turn out to be mistaken. But it is not just an idea that comes from nowhere. It is an experience of apprehending something that is objectively there.)

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Steve D. writes:

For what it’s worth, and at the risk of sounding a sycophant, I have exactly the same intuition on Palin as you do. She reminds me of a shark who’s just been let loose in a tank of tough-guy mackerel. I think the Democrats, and the media, are in for an uncomfortable time.

Or not; we’ll see.

What really stands out in Alter’s piece is the unspoken assumption that the race will turn on what the media think of her. Alter reveals more about Alter than about Palin.

James W. writes:

I, too, suspect Palin is more likely to impress than explode. In preparedness, there is a great difference between memorization and understanding. Palin understands, even if she has memorized nothing to date. It is more likely that she will embarrass her overconfident inquisitors, and perhaps even McCain, with her excellence.

That does not mean she does not have much to learn. But we see countless politicians learning vast numbers of things that are not true. It is character we seek, and if she has character it will be the first sighting this year. She shoots moose and politicians.

There are now a significant number of conservatives who will vote, when they would not before. Perhaps millions. They know what McCain is and do not really expect him to change. But even with a Marxist running, they needed some small token from McCain that he could control himself in his worst instincts.

Paul K. writes:

You argue cogently; Alter … not so much. He sounds about as disconnected from the attitudes that exist outside elite enclaves as Maureen Dowd, spouting liberal boilerplate as indisputable fact. What goes over in flyover country and what goes over in the Newsweek editorial suite are two different things.

I’ve pulled out some of Alter’s tendentious assumptions:

Alter: “What is it exactly that the vice president does all day?” Palin offhandedly asked CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow in July.

Yes, what does he do? Like Sarah, I have no idea, despite a lifelong interest in politics. [LA replies: Ha ha! I had the same reaction to that one. After all, we know that the only constitutional duty of the VP is to preside over the Senate, and that the VP’s have not done that at all in recent decades. Cheney has presided over the Senate perrhaps four times in the last eight years, on special occasions. So the question what does the VP do is obviously a valid one and Alter’s attempt to make Palin seem stupid for asking it reveals him as a snob.]

Alter: Her claim on “Charlie Rose” that Alaska’s untapped resources can significantly ease American dependence on foreign oil is unsupported by the facts.

Whether or not that is “unsupported by facts” depends on how we define “significantly.”

Alter: [It] won’t do much to counter the argument Obama made in his acceptance speech, which is that drilling is only a “stopgap” measure.

Who is persuaded by that argument except liberals?

Alter: Palin, who supported Pat Buchanan’s run in 1996 (unhelpful in the Jewish community)…

As unhelpful as Obama’s association with Rev. Wright? Anyway, if McCain’s counting on the Jewish vote, he’s sunk already.

Alter: But what does she know about Iranian nukes, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the future of entitlement programs?

When Obama speaks about these and other fundamental issues I don’t feel like I’m listening to someone who really understands them in any significant sense, but just glosses over them with the usual liberal bromides. So for campaign purposes, Sarah should be able to bring herself up to speed on them with a few hours of cramming.

It’s interesting that in your piece, you quote Alter as saying, “She thinks global warming is a hoax and backs the teaching of creationism in public schools.” This has been removed from the column at the Newsweek site, and there is another factual correction regarding her support for Buchanan (it was in 1996, not 2000). As far as global warming, I believe it IS a hoax, and Palin just wants Creationism presented on its merits along with Darwinism. [LA replies: Of course, lots and lots of intelligent people think manmade global warming is a hoax or at least mistaken. Alter’s assumption that Palin’s sharing that view puts her somehow off the charts against shows snobbery.]

Alter juxtaposes these two sentences: “It’s hard to know how many women will flock to the GOP ticket because of Palin, who opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest. In 1984 Ronald Reagan carried 56 percent of female voters, despite Ferraro’s candidacy on the Democratic side.” This seems to make a point other than the one he intends, making it sound like opposing abortion hurts a woman candidate’s chances, then mentioning that Reagan took a majority of the women’s vote.

LA replies:

I said Alter’s article was cogent because its central point, that Palin would not have the knowledge to speak competently on national and international matters in the campaign, was well made and made me think. I didn’t say I agreed with him on that point, just that he made it cogently.

Doug E. writes:

Three falsehoods in two sentences from the MSM is intolerable. Newsweek writes:

“She is a far-right conservative who supported Pat Buchanan over George W. Bush in 2000 [#1]. She thinks global warming is a hoax [#2] and backs the teaching of creationism in public schools [#3].

Does Newsweek know that Google exists?

#1 Palin support of Buchanan

As mayor of Wasilla, I am proud to welcome all presidential candidates to our city. This is true regardless of their party, or the latest odds of their winning. When presidential candidates visit our community, I am always happy to meet them. I’ll even put on their button when handed one as a polite gesture of respect.

Though no reporter interviewed me for the Associated Press article on the recent visit by a presidential candidate (Metro, July 17), the article may have left your readers with the perception that I am endorsing this candidate, as opposed to welcoming his visit to Wasilla. As mayor, I will welcome all the candidates in Wasilla.

August 7, 1999: AP reports on Steve Forbes’ campaign in Alaska. “Joining the Fairbanks Republican on the leadership committee will be Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, and former state GOP chairman Pete Hallgren, who will serve as co-chairs.”

#2 Palin and Global Warming

A reader takes me to task for claiming John Kerry was wrong to say Gov. Palin does not believe in manmade global warming, pointing to a NewsMax interview in which she said: “A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.” That certainly sounds like she doubts the human contribution to climate change. Yet her actions as Governor suggest something different. She’s repeatedly stressed the importance of climate change to her state, and the world. She’s created a sub-cabinet to work on the issue, signed on as an observer to the Western Climate Initiative (a group of Western states devleoping a regional cap-and-trade plan), and is promoting the development of natural gas as a low-carbon fuel along with renewable energy sources. So, while she has made a statement doubting the human role in climate change, her actions on the issue as governor are hardly those of a “radical,” and are quite in line with McCain’s approach to the subject. “

#3 Creationism and Public Schools

“I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum.”

She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state’s required curriculum.

Mark J. writes:

My first thought when reading what Alter said about Palin’s unpreparedness is that the same could largely be said of Obama. He’s said not to be very good without a teleprompter or without prepared questions. And what do the Dems do? Same thing the Republicans have largely done with Bush—they’re very careful not put Obama in situations where he could be asked difficult questions.

He has had a few years as Senator so he’s at least got a basic answer for most national/international questions, but I think Palin can pick that up pretty quickly. She’s probably only really going to be exposed to national questioning during the VP debate. And I think the Republicans will come up with some answer she can give in general to show that she’s coming up to speed on the big topics.

The main thing she has going is tremendous likability. (I’m not saying that should be enough.) What Obama has for Democrats is likability, and it’s been enough to allow him to skate past any tough questions. (I’ve never heard of him being really put on the spot over his Black Liberation Theology ties yet.) So the Republicans can just limit Palin to appearances where she can show off her charm and be likable and I think the odds are good that she will largely be able to make it to the election without making any serious gaffes.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 31, 2008 05:30 PM | Send

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