Tuesday, September 30, 2008

21 Years in Captivity

Julian Sanchez methodically obliterates the "Free Sarah Palin" meme that is all the rage in conservative circles these days (via Teh Henley). For those unaware with the tenets of the Free Sarrah movement, the theory is that she has been over-coached and over-prepared, and as a result, she stumbles through interviews sounding uncertain and spouting talking points without segue. Sanchez is having none of it:

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.

Do read the rest.

In the immediate aftermath of McCain's selection of Palin, the press attention given to the choice was overwhelming. The media (and the country) was caught off guard, and in the scramble to vet the candidate and get to know her, there was a deluge of coverage - some negative, though more positive. Right out of the gate, her political star shot through the glass ceiling roof. Her rise was aided by a well-delivered speech on a big stage at a time when she was commanding the eyeballs of the nation.

Political blogs (this one included) were certainly swept up in the maelstrom - dedicating significant bandwith to Palin-related posts. At the time, many a concerned blogger and commenter warned that there was too much focus on Palin, and that by dwelling on Palin the commentariat was shielding McCain and ultimately helping the GOP cause by talking up the more popular half of the ticket. "Stop writing about Palin," went the plaintive cry.

My guess is that those concerns have subsided and, in retrospect, most people would agree that keeping the heat on Palin wasn't such a bad idea after all.

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