Monday, October 13, 2008

Energizing the basest

Sarah Palin knocked me out during the Republican convention, more for her pluck than her message. People that look a lot like people I know and respect were talking about how the Palin addition to the ticket had "energized the base."

However, the more I reflect on the Palin experience, the more disappointed I am in her and the more appalled I am by McCain's decision.

First, there is what might be called the Alaska experience: One trooper more or less, maybe one librarian more or less, maybe some pork, maybe some questionable use of state funds....but the last two months have been like a water torture of revelations. Over the weekend, we were treated a tortured explanation of Palin "abuse" of an Alaska state trooper, using terms like "improper" and "impermissible", yet somehow managing to conclude that Palin's behavior was within her rights as governor.

The McCain-Palin campaign declared a day ahead of the report's release that she had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

On top of her attempted censorship of the local library, her twisted credit-taking for the "bridge to nowhere," her non-existent stance "standing up to big oil", this latest violation starts to look less like pluck and more like a pattern.

Second, after the incredible party at the Republican convention, there has been the lingering hangover of Palin's contributions to the national discussion. I cannot fault her inability to discuss the Bush doctrine, since the Bush administration has never acted in a coherent enough way to have something as recognizable as a doctrine. George W Bush has never satisfactorily explained why we're in Iraq -- we now know for certain that it wasn't to find al-Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction, and the current pols don't seem too whipped to figure anything else out -- but ironically, this is the only foreign policy decision Palin seems to endorse.

No, the hangover has worsened through interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric that range from embarrassing to disastrous. Both of these conversations show a Palin way WAY out of her depth, trying to remain likable and plucky while using just enough carefully coached phrases to imply that she has depth. Nowhere in all the discussions of foreign policy does she once mention an ally, does she mention the United Nations, does she show any understanding of how or why the two Gulf wars are alike (successful military undertaking) or different (world support for our position). Nowhere in all the discussions of domestic issues does she show any sense at all for the diversity -- in wealth, opinion, belief, or ANY other dimension -- present in the United States. She defines and sticks to the single hockey mom character in the hopes that the debate and the election can be about whether that character has value, rather than how it is that her candidacy and administration can raise and support all the characters in this country.

But of course, life doesn't really owe us a candidate who is completely familiar with all the issues. (This is particularly true of vice presidents. Don't you think that a bunch of your friends, or your kids' teachers if you're lucky, or even the kids themselves, are qualified to be vice president?) After all, Ronald Reagan famously insisted that all issues be condensed into bullets on a single sheet of paper. One could argue that the most important characteristic of a national leader is the ability to articulate and press a vision for the country, a set of definitions and character sketches that we could live into in order to be a better place and people. George HW Bush did this with his "thousand points of light," which went off the charts in focus groups and cemented his first presidential bid. Palin? She cannot name a single newpaper, magazine or book that she has read into order to inform her decisions. Are you kidding? My 12-year-old reads enough to form ideas and thoughts (and best of all, questions) about what's going on in the world.

Third, it would be one thing if Sarah Palin were some sort of poster child for the hard right or for the social conservatives who have apparently felt mistreated and left out by the McCain candidacy so far. But lately, Palin appearances have been poorly-conceived opportunities to sling mud at Obama, mud that is much closer to hand as she sinks into the swamp the McCain campaign has become. OK, that's the hallmark of a failing campaign; with 20 days to go, sling everything you can, hope some of it sticks, and if you carry the day, then refer back to all that as the kind of toughness a leader needs to show. Only problem is: no one's buying it. The only people who seem to respond to this are the people that were already energized by the Palin candidacy. The biggest outcome so far of the lurch into negativity seems to be the freedom that Palin's performances bestow on those bent on hate. Increasingly, as Palin trots out the slender or debunked Obama myths, she plays on the fears of those increasingly paranoid crowds, tacitly approving their cries of "Treason" and "Traitor" when she tries to muddy Obama. As these rallies get uglier, with folks yelling "Kill Him!" Sarah Palin's tacit approval of this anger leaves puts her on the wrong side of history by showing us the worst side of ourselves.

Plucky? No, just grotesque.

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