The Palin Problem
Yes, she won the debate by not imploding. But governing requires knowledge, and mindless populism is just that—mindless.
The question, the McCain campaign later acknowledged, was a fair one. In one of her sit-downs with Katie Couric of CBS News, Sarah Palin was asked to discuss a Supreme Court decision with which she disagreed. “Well, let’s see,” Palin replied, pausing. “There’s, of course in the great history of America there have been rulings, that’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but …” Couric followed up: “Can you think of any?” Palin, still pondering, said: “Well, I could think of … any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with. But, you know, as mayor, and then as governor and even as a vice president, if I’m so privileged to serve, wouldn’t be in a position of changing those things but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.” Asked about the exchange afterward, a McCain adviser who didn’t want to be named talking about a sensitive matter said the question was fair, but added: “I wonder how many Americans would be able to name decisions they disagree with. The court is very important, but Palin is on the ticket because she connects with everyday Americans.”
Palin is on the ticket because she connects with everyday Americans. It is not shocking to learn that politics played a big role in the making of a presidential team (ticket-balancing to attract different constituencies has been with us at least since Andrew Jackson ran with John C. Calhoun, a man he later said he would like to kill). But that honest explanation of the rationale for her candidacy—not her preparedness for office, but her personality and nascent maverickism in Alaska—raises an important question, not only about this election but about democratic leadership. Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks? Therein lies an enormous difference, one that could decide the presidential election and, if McCain and Palin were to win, shape the governance of the nation.
In an interview before her debate with Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Palin offered a revealing answer to radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Governor, your candidacy has ignited extreme hostility, even some hatred on the left and in some parts of the media,” Hewitt said. “Are you surprised? And what do you attribute this reaction to?”
On the phone from McCain’s retreat in Sedona, Palin replied: “I think they’re just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying, ‘You know what? It’s time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency.’ I think that that’s kind of taken some people off guard, and they’re out of sorts, and they’re ticked off about it, but it’s motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe Six-Pack like me, and we start doing those things that are expected of our government, and we get rid of corruption, and we commit to the reform that is not only desired, but is deserved by Americans.” This is, presumably, good politics: it makes a strength out of a weakness, always a shrewd tactic.
A key argument for Palin, in essence, is this: Washington and Wall Street are serving their own interests rather than those of the broad whole of the country, and the moment requires a vice president who will, Cincinnatus-like, help a new president come to the rescue. The problem with the argument is that Cincinnatus knew things. Palin sometimes seems an odd combination of Chauncey Gardiner from “Being There” and Marge from “Fargo.”
Is this an elitist point of view? Perhaps, though it seems only reasonable and patriotic to hold candidates for high office to high standards. Elitism in this sense is not about educational or class credentials, not about where you went to school or whether you use “summer” as a verb. It is, rather, about the pursuit of excellence no matter where you started out in life. Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton were born to ordinary families, but they spent their lives doing extraordinary things, demonstrating an interest in, and a curiosity about, the world around them. This is much less evident in Palin’s case.
John McCain is a man of accomplishment and curiosity, of wide and deep reading, travel and experience. He is smart without being a snob. He has authored legislation and books. He is a man of parts—the kind of figure whom one could effortlessly imagine being president. Are there many politically attuned people in America now who can honestly say the same thing of Sarah Palin? That they can effortlessly envision President Palin in the Oval Office, ready on day one to manage a market meltdown or a terror attack? Whether one agrees or disagrees with his politics, there is no arguing that McCain is qualified to be president of the United States. But there is plenty of argument about Palin’s qualifications. Why should we apply a different standard to the vice president who would stand to succeed him?
Even devoted Republicans doubt whether the Sarah Six-Pack case is the best one to make. After the vice presidential debate, a senior figure in the party, who asked not to be named because he was telling the truth, told me that Palin should talk less about being “just-folks” and more about being governor of a large state.
We have been here before. In 1970 a Nebraska senator, Roman L. Hruska, was defending Richard Nixon’s nomination of U.S. circuit Judge G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. An underwhelming figure, Carswell was facing criticism that he was too “mediocre” for elevation. Hruska tried an interesting counterargument: “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.” Fair enough, but it still seems sensible to aspire to surpass mediocrity rather than embrace it.
The capacity of the common man (and now woman) to serve in government is the subject of ancient debate. The philosophers Robert Dale Owen and Jeremy Bentham believed in the principle of rotation in office—the idea that citizens could do the work of government for a time, then return to private life—and Andrew Jackson, in the beginning of the modern democratic era, spoke in similar terms about the federal government: “The duties of all public officers are, or at least admit to being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.” But Jackson was thinking about postmasters, not presidents.
We have had terrific presidents and vice presidents from humble backgrounds, and we have had terrible presidents and vice presidents from privileged ones. The unease with Palin is not class-based. It is empirically based. She is a rising political star, a young woman—she is only 44—who has done extraordinary things. It takes guts to offer oneself for election, and to serve. It is far easier to throw spitballs from the stands than it is to seek and hold office. She is a governor, and she has the courage to go into the arena. For that she should be honored and respected. If she were seeking a Senate seat, or being nominated for a cabinet post—secretary of energy, say, or interior—the conversation about her would be totally different.
But she is not seeking a Senate seat, nor is she being nominated for a cabinet post, and so it is only prudent to ask whether she is in fact someone who should be president of the United States in the event of disaster. She may be ready in a year or two, but disaster does not coordinate its calendar with ours. Would we muddle through if Palin were to become president? Yes, we would, but it is worth asking whether we should have to.
What do we know about Palin after, as she put it with a wink, “like, five weeks”? That she can be a superb political performer (she held her own against Biden, projecting an image of warmth and toughness) and she can be a poor one (too many questions in the debate went completely unanswered, and the Couric interview is full of moments no candidate would like to have out there). But that is only human. Everyone has good days and bad days. Her syntax is sometimes a world unto itself. But George H.W. Bush occasionally sounded as though English were more foe than friend, and he was an astute president who managed complexity with skill and balance. The arsenal of folksy phrases—”doggone it,” “you betcha”—grates on some, but seems just great to others.
The story of Palin’s brief national career helps explain her uneven performances. She had virtually no time to prepare, and has had virtually no time since. Her star turn began quickly, and mysteriously. When Nicolle Wallace and Matthew Scully, two former Bush aides who now work for McCain, showed up at a dingy Ohio hotel in late August to meet the new running mate, they had no idea who might be waiting for them. Just a day before, Wallace had been in a dentist’s chair in New York, getting a root canal, when Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top strategist, summoned her to Ohio. She tried to say no, but her dentist, a McCain fan, insisted she could make it, giving her a prescription for Vicodin to numb the pain. The next morning, dazed by the meds, Wallace arrived in Cincinnati and drove with Scully to Middletown, Ohio, where McCain’s VP was holed up until the big announcement the following day.
As Wallace and Scully drove up, they were met outside by Schmidt and Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide and speechwriter. Schmidt escorted the two upstairs, where he dramatically paused before a closed door. “You’re No. 7 and 8,” Schmidt said, referring to the number of people who were privy to McCain’s choice. As the door opened, a woman rose to greet them, shaking their hands enthusiastically. Scully and Wallace, still numb from her procedure, smiled and introduced themselves. The woman, Sarah Palin, looked very familiar, but, as both later recounted to other McCain aides, they did not immediately know who she was. (McCain loves this story, relishing the success of his bid to keep the selection process secret.)
When she shook their hands, the governor of Alaska was already in the surreal bubble of a modern presidential campaign, an odd ethos in which one is rarely alone and yet often lonely. Remembering how John Edwards had brought his own staff to the ticket with John Kerry in 2004, creating immediate and lasting tensions, the McCain camp wanted to exert complete control over their running mate. Schmidt and others assembled a team of well-known Republican hands for the veep squad. The campaign pointedly did not hire anyone from Palinworld.
The governor, meanwhile, is only a recent visitor to McCainworld. After the announcement in Dayton, the Friday before the convention in St. Paul, aides gave her thick binders full of policies and arranged sit-downs with some of McCain’s top advisers, including Randy Scheunemann, Doug Holtz-Eakin and Sens. Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. On the day she was nominated, Palin, joining McCain on a bus tour, was given reading material: every policy speech McCain has given in this campaign.
Some who know her from Alaska suggest that Palin is a deft crammer, and her performance against Biden supports that. Larry Persily, a former Anchorage Daily News editorial-page editor, left the newspaper in May 2007 and worked as an associate director in Palin’s Washington, D.C., office until June 2008. He says he left on good terms—Palin offered him another job when he resigned—but he believes she is not qualified to be vice president and is speaking out for that reason. He describes Palin as an easily distracted manager. “Her preppings [briefings] were accentuated by the brevity of them. She’s not going to pore over briefing books and charts and white papers and reports for hours and hours. She knows how to connect with people, and it’s like, ‘Give me bullet points and I’ll run with it’ … I don’t think she had trouble focusing. She didn’t have an interest in focusing.”
Her isolation in recent weeks has taken a toll, and she has been hungry for company. It has been difficult for Palin to be isolated from her friends not only by distance, but also electronically. Palin’s Yahoo account was hacked into in mid-September and messages between her and friends were posted online. (In one such message, a colleague tells Palin not to let the negative press get to her.) Wasilla friend Kristan Cole says that in the initial days after Palin was picked she regularly communicated with Palin via e-mail. That stopped after the hacking incident. The women have always talked electronically. “You can do it on the go and respond at 2 o’clock in the morning, and with all the time changes that was the best way to communicate.” Since Palin’s account was hacked into, Cole has not sent her a single e-mail or received one from her. “I’m more gun-shy, because when you’ve had the relationship we have had—my son was in a critical car accident, and working through all that and her family and Trig—it’s made me hesitant to say anything very personal [via e-mail], and that’s sad.”
A turning point came last week, when Kris Perry returned to Palin’s immediate orbit. Perry, who worked as her scheduler, was stuck in Anchorage for the past month, waiting to see if she would be deposed in the ongoing “Troopergate” investigation. Only on the Friday before the Thursday debate, after a delay in the investigation, did Perry feel able to leave town and fly south. (Troopergate could make headlines again this Friday, when a special counsel is due to issue his report on the matter.) It was Perry who helped Palin relax and regain her footing prior to last Thursday night’s debate.
Sealing Palin off from Perry, whom she met when both were in the hospital giving birth to their children six years ago (in Palin’s case it was her fourth, daughter Piper), was a mistake, say those in Palinworld. Next to Todd, says one former aide who did not want to be named discussing sensitive personnel matters, Perry was the person most responsible for “creating a sense of peace around Sarah.” Despite recent media reports of a wild temper, those who know Palin say she is more prone to anxiety and frantic overdrive than tantrums. “She’s the world’s worst multitasker,” says the aide. “She’ll have a cell phone in one hand, the BlackBerry in the other while she is reading two position papers. You have to tell her prior to the debate, ‘Put that down, breathe deep.’ They [the McCain staff] are not going to know that.”
What Palin knows, and what the country knows about her, is an issue for the next few weeks. Barack Obama is not the Messiah, and Biden is no Simon Peter, but it stretches credulity to say that Obama is no more qualified to be president than Palin is. Though you may prefer McCain-Palin to Obama-Biden, there is not the same threshold question about the Democrats that is now being asked about Palin.
Sitting with her for part of the Couric interview, McCain implicitly compared Palin to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, saying that they, too, had been caricatured and dismissed by mainstream voices. The linkages are untenable. For all of his manifold sins, Clinton was a longtime governor, and George H.W. Bush’s attacks on his qualifications failed for a reason: people may not have respected Clinton’s character, but they did not doubt the quality of his mind. A successful two-term governor of California, Reagan had spent decades immersed in politics (of both the left and the right) before running for president. He did like to call himself a citizen-politician, and Lord knows he had an occasionally ambiguous relationship with facts, but he was a serious man who had spent a great deal of time thinking about the central issues of the age. To put it kindly, Palin, however promising a governor she is, has not done similar work.
I could be wrong. Perhaps Sarah Palin will somehow emerge from the hurly-burly of history as a transformative figure who was underestimated in her time by journalists who could not see, or refused to acknowledge, her virtues. But do I think I am right in saying that Palin’s populist view of high office—hey, Vice President Six-Pack, what should we do about Pakistan?—is dangerous? You betcha.
With Holly Bailey, Karen Breslau, Suzanne Smalley, Michael Isikoff and Sarah Kliff