In the wake of the disastrous Couric interview with Sarah Palin, even the hacks are voicing concerns about their rising star–cum–shooting star. But since removing her from the ticket, even by the transparent expedient of having her “voluntarily” withdraw to “spend more time with the family,” would be at least as disatrous as keeping her on, many are still casting about for ways to defend the nation’s most prominent hockey mom. One emerging narrative—in the proud tradition of lamentations that “if only the king knew what his wicked advisors were up to…”—is that the McCain campaign needs to “Free Sarah Palin” from the malign influence of handlers who are squelching her precious “authenticity.” Voters love Palin when she can just be herself, the theory goes, and her cringe-inducing performance in interviews is the result of over-coaching that has prompted her to fall back on half-memorized talking points. The “real” Sarah, you see, would have handled herself with articulate aplomb.
It’s a nice enough theory, but where exactly is the evidence for it? Sure, we can look back and find instances where she’s handled herself more competently, but her gaffes have not been, as some of her apologists seem to want to imply, a matter of getting flustered by her failure to recall the name of the Brazilian finance minister. Her problem is not mastery of the details: It’s fundamental cluelessness about how the economy works, and a demonstrable inability to conceive of foreign policy in anything but the crudest terms.
Put it this way, one thing I learned from college debate is that a reasonably bright person can generally manage to sound at least competent talking about issues they don’t really understand. I recall one case my partner and I debated where the other team argued against dollarizing the Ecuadorian sucre. We didn’t know a damn thing about the economic or political situation in Ecuador, or a whole lot about monetary policy. I doubt I could have told you the name of Ecuador’s president, let alone the finance minister. But we had some basic econ and game theory down, and I knew a bit about the Mexican peso crisis of the mid-90s, and so we were able to bluff our way through and win the round. The kind of mess we’ve seen in Palin’s interviews, then, can’t really be ascribed to an ignorance of details that could be remedied with a few more flash-card sessions. As Jeff Goldberg puts it, the problem isn’t so much that she doesn’t have the right answers, it’s that she doesn’t seem to have enough of a grasp on the questions to bluff her way through with something vague but halfway cogent sounding. This suggests that she’s either profoundly ignorant on economic and foreign policy questions, in a deep and architectonic way unlikely to be remedied by a few briefings geared toward filling in the lacunae, or that she’s just not terribly bright.
Sure, Palin is probably personable and appealing when she can just ad-lib to her fans, provided the subject is her disdain for coastal latte-sippers or her fictional rejection of government largesse. The truly strange thing about this whole narrative, though, is that the high point of Palin-love, the moment the hacks are all wistfully recalling now, is the governor’s appalling alpha-Heather schtick from the RNC. In other words, the time we saw her at her most scripted, and with a script penned by one of those very Bush holdovers who are purportedly keeping True Sarah under wraps.
The simplest inference from the available data points, it would seem, is exactly the opposite of the theory behind the calls to “Free Sarah”: At the end of the day, Palin is still basically a local TV news personality. Give her a prompter loaded with punchy zingers, and she’ll deliver it smoothly and with verve. It’s when she’s forced to get interactive that she runs into trouble.
This is, of course, more or less the line conservative have long been pushing about Obama: He’s great with a prepared text, much more uneven in debates. Obama’s problem in that context, though, seems to be a lingering professorial tendency to want to think through his answer in realtime, covering all the angles as though the exchange were some sort of Socratic inquiry, when a well-packaged talking point would better fit the bill. This, to put it as mildly and kindly as possible, would not appear to be Palin’s problem.
Update: Jesus, the bar keeps getting lower, doesn’t it? From one of K-Lo’s little pen pals at The Corner:
She is over kicking her coverage (in football phrasing) in trying to earnestly answer questions about Senator McCain’s history of reform in Congress (she is not a Congressional historian) or trying to recall past Supreme Court decisions besides Roe v. Wade (she is not a legal scholar).
The “legal scholar” is the one that really kills me. As though a passing familiarity with important Supreme Court decisions were the exclusive province of academic specialists, rather than, you know, the most minimal sort of prerequisite for considering yourself an educated citizen. But of course, as we’re sure to be reminded, lots of ordinary Americans probably couldn’t name another important Supreme Court case, just as lots of Americans (we were admonished) don’t know what the Bush Doctrine is. I keep waiting for the tongue-clucking op-ed observing that fully half of Americans are of below-average intelligence.
Of course, the vast majority of Americans aren’t remotely qualified to be Vice President either. But it’s apparently embedded in our cultural DNA now that anyone can follow their dreams, achieve any goal… more or less by wishing, regardless of personal merit. Palin is the logical upshot of The Secret, reality TV, and a million goofy Hollywood comedies, all conspiring to tell us that utterly unremarkable folks can wake up to find themselves rich, famous, and successful more or less at random.
You can get away with calling Harvard golden boy Barack Obama underqualified, because that plays to the politics of ressentiment: “See, he’s not such a hotshot after all.” But say the same of Sarah—or at any rate, so this rhetorical strategy assumes—and you risk cutting a little too close to home. In my cynical moods, I find myself suspecting that’s precisely why she was chosen.