Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Of Sarah Palin?

The right-wing pundit Armageddon surrounding Sarah Palin continues. On the one hand, we have the Kathleen Parkers, Peggy Noonans, David Frums, David Brooks', and Christopher Buckleys (He's William F. Buckleys son. Yes, that's right, Bill Buckley had a son. No, I hadn't heard of him either before this, but then again how many people cared about Ron Reagan before he became useful for beating up Republicans?). These people generally disapprove. Some of their disapproval is thoughtful and well-reasoned. Some of it is apparently based on the delightful bon mots one is able to use to describe Barack Obama, that rara avis. On the other hand we have Jonah Goldberg, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Steyn, Dennis Prager, Jay Nordlinger, and the majority of conservative punditry, who run the gamut from tentative approval to full-on crushes. So what are we to make of these two warring camps and their views on the Alaska governor? Who is right? Has Governor Palin been a net gain or loss for the ticket?

I'd like to offer my services as a semi-neutral observer. While nobody is completely neutral on the issue, I think that I can come as close as any. Before her selection, I liked the Alaska governor, but felt that she needed a little more seasoning in Juneau, a state which still needs her to clean up it's Republican oligarchy. I was VERY happy when she was picked, both out of relief that McCain had forgone the Lieberman option, and because she is undoubtedly an impressive person. I've defended her on this blog, but I was disappointed in her opening interviews, less than impressed by her debate performance, and I am convinced that she's been mishandled by the campaign. So, while I have an attitude towards her that is positive overall, I am not blind to her flaws. If that isn't enough balance, I respect and admire columnists on both sides of the issue. When Peggy Noonan and Jonah Goldberg don't agree, a little piece of me dies inside. With that, let's dive in.

The arguments against her seem to come as one of two general types. The first is that she is not bright or experienced enough for the job. This is usually juxtaposed with Barack Obama's exceptional and super-duper extra brilliance, as seen in the work of David Brooks and Buckley Junior. The second is that she may turn off more independents and disaffected Hillary voters than she gains. We'll take them one at a time.

The dunce versus Harvard Law review editor argument is one that seems silly to me on it's face. Though there are more thoughtful versions expressed by people like Ross Douthut, the basic fact is that the intellectual heavy lifting in a movement is never done by it's leaders, but instead by it's pundits and thinkers. That's just the nature of the political beast. Were it not so, we'd be arguing over whether Alan Keyes or Ramesh Ponnuru would make a better successor to President Phil Gramm. As long as a leader is willing to listen to those thinkers, there is little reason to worry that he is not one himself. Governor Palin has not so far shown a reason to believe that she would refuse good advice. As for her intellectual merits, some might argue that successful careers in journalism, as mayor of a small town, on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and as governor of a state all indicate that her brainpower is more than sufficient for the rigors of high office. In previous posts, I've compared some of the presidency's great thinkers to men who were considered to be of modest intellect, but were great presidents. I don't think I need to review that list here to reiterate the point, but I'll leave you with two words, just in case. Woodrow Wilson. 'Nuff said.

The experience side of the argument holds a little more water. As I've said before, I think that her experience (like that of Barack Obama) leaves room for doubt. I personally think she'd do fine based on her past performance, but I can't necessarily condemn someone who doesn't. Frankly, I think McCain did himself some genuine damage by ceding the high ground on experience, one of the few areas where he had unquestionable supremacy. However, given a choice between placing someone who had 18 months in statewide office before announcing his candidacy, and someone who had 20 months in statewide office before announcing hers, isn't it pretty much a wash? Besides, if John McCain drops dead, it won't be on day 1. It might be on day 85, or day 120, or day 498. Will she still be inexperienced after serving at his side for two or three years? I doubt it. It comes down to a choice between inexperience from day one versus potential inexperience sometime in the future.

Now for the other argument, the idea that she might be turning off independents and PUMAS. I'll grant you that she may. In fact, I'd go further and say she probably is. However, consider this. She is probably in part a victim of unrealistically high expectations. McCain is, at best, in a state of uneasy truce with the base of his party. One immigration fiasco, one unkind word for conservatives is all that stands between him and a complete party walkout. This is exacerbated by his need for volunteers in order to try to keep his GOTV efforts at all competitive with Barack Obama's vastly better-funded operation. So who then could appeal to all of those precious independents and swing voters while shoring up the base? Mitt Romney? Have we so soon forgotten the unease many people felt regarding his relatively recent conversion to conservatism? Mike Huckabee? He's simply a less attractive, more articulate Sarah Palin, with fewer conservative viewpoints. Tim Pawlenty? The world would have uttered a collective "WHO?!?!" had McCain picked him. And yet this is precisely the task many assigned to Sarah Palin. The bottom line is that Sarah Palin was, and remains INCREDIBLY popular among McCain's base, something that probably wouldn't have happened had she also been able to appeal to independents.

There is both anecdotal and statistical evidence to this effect. I know plenty of conservative people who don't pay particularly close attention to electoral politics, but tend to turn out consistently on election day. Many of them were seriously considering sitting this one out, until Palin came along. Now they're donating money and time. Let's not forget that her VP debate set a new TV viewing record. Do you think it was Biden pulling people in? She's drawing larger crowds than McCain wherever she goes, despite her missteps in recent interviews. And yet McCain has lost ground among independents since placing her on the ticket, and voters are split along party lines on her qualifications for office. But again, how much of this could she have remedied while keeping the base satisfied? Yes, her rollout was botched, and she'd have been a heck of a lot harder to spoof on SNL if her initial interviews went better, but would that really have turned many people around? After all, she's still solidly to McCain's right on every major issue. The bottom line is that if the original Maverick can't draw independents against a left-wing senator who votes for infanticide, blurbs books for terrorists, and channels money to Marxist radicals, no VP on earth can do the job either. Let Sarah keep the base happy. While she's definitely been a mixed bag, and failed to live up to everyone's high hopes, she may be the only thing saving McCain from a route on election day.