Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Change We Wish We Could Believe In

I guess I have to eat some of my words about McCain's choice of Sarah Palin. I thought that she was just worth stealing a quick news cycle, and that he'd be regretting his pick by now. Alas, she seems to have greatly energized "the base", by plugging in to some wellspring of populist zeitgeist. I can understand where the appeal comes from. She comes across as a no-nonsense super soccer Mom that doesn't look anything like the politicos in Washington, and just might knock some sense into the Beltway crowd in between hunting moose and making sandwiches for her kids to take to school. She's personifying a compelling combination of icons: all-American Mom, female action hero (think Lara Croft), and Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington. Jim Manzi characterized her populist appeal as Wilma Jennings Bryan. But I worry that Publius is also onto something when he compares her to Chauncey Gardner. I think there's a whole lot of projection going on (easy to do with somebody nobody ever heard of before two weeks ago), and what we're seeing now in Sarah Palin is the change we wish we could believe in. It's a great narrative, but Frank Capra notwithstanding, I'm not so sure whether it's a good idea to send Sarah Palin to Washington.

What's dismaying is how much energy is expended on arguing about the narrative on both sides. She's being swiftboated by the left and canonized by the right, and it's often hard to see the truth amidst the shrapnel. On the plus side, she seems to have done some things on solid principle, which is refreshing. There's her Down's syndrome baby, for one thing, which must be acknowledged for truly walking the walk on her beliefs. And she vetoed a legislative attempt to deny same-sex domestic partner benefits to Alaska state employees, because she said it was unconstitutional to do so, even while saying she would support a constitutional amendment to effect the same thing. While it's obviously a minus in my book that she'd like to amend the state constitution to deny domestic partner benefits, I have to acknowledge it's a big plus that she gets what a constitution means and how it limits the legislature and the executive. (You folks in Washington DC paying attention?) It's also a plus that she doesn't seem to give a rat's ass about partisan loyalty, and she seems intolerant of corruption. On the downside, she seems to have a strong propensity for personal vindictiveness coloring her hiring (or rather, firing) decisions. She's done a lot of sacking, and while some of it was getting "corrupt old bastards" sacked who deserved it, others are hard to rationalize as other than personal (e.g., Troopergate and most of the firings she did or attempted as mayor). Her fiscal record as mayor -- sloppy execution of the construction of an excessive sports complex leaving the town with a huge new bond debt while raising the local sales tax -- is hardly balm to a fiscal conservative's soul. And while she seems to have some strong principles, a devotion to plain-spoken truth-telling doesn't appear to be one of them. But the biggest downside is that, folksy charm and gun-toting hockey Mom mystique notwithstanding, she's just not a credible choice. Who wasn't gobsmacked that McCain picked her? She was surprised herself. If she has the first clue about foreign policy or economic policy or anything else that a President is expected to know about, I'm eager to hear it. A Harriet Miers-style "oh, I guess I'd better bone up on that" just won't cut it.

What's more dismaying is that the way they are playing this, it's as if neither truth nor expertise matter to the public in choosing a candidate. Palin is running around repeating exposed lies in her scripted stump speech, showing that narratives are even more stubborn things than facts. And as she travels around the country, she's not saying anything other than repeating her acceptance speech, and taking no questions from anyone. Finally they've agreed to let her be interviewed by Charles Gibson of ABC News, no doubt hand-picked based on his dismal charade of journalism at the Philadelphia Obama-Clinton debate, so he can ask Palin about lapel pins. This isn't a serious campaign, it's political performance art. A couple of recent observations are really sticking with me. Hilzoy worries whether politics has degraded to where candidates not only bend the truth, they blatantly disregard it, and it doesn't seem to matter. Andrew ponders the "end of expertise", quoting a sociology professor who worries about an increasingly popular notion that anyone's opinion about any topic is equally valuable. It would seem to offend some similar egalitarian sentiments to suggest that Palin is less qualified. I'm hoping that America is generally smarter than that. Do truth and expertise still mean something? I guess we'll find out.

What's most dismaying is the way that this whole thing is ingeniously succeeding, because we're all (including me) talking about her non-stop. It's so fascinating (or hathetic, depending on your viewpoint), we can't help ourselves. She should be the side-show, but she's become the show-stealer. And the insidious thing is that attacking her just plays into the narrative, and strengthens her appeal in the eyes of those who are dazzled by her iconic appeal. (But then again, I'm an arugula-eating, latte-sipping, left coast Ivy League elite type, so I'm understandably out of touch.) What we really should be talking about is John McCain. What the heck was he thinking? Even if she turns out to have been a brilliant political choice, there's no denying it was a huge desperate spontaneous gamble, like going "all in" and drawing four cards. Do we really want someone in the White House who makes decisions like that?

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