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|September 11-17, 2008
Back to Letters
Sarah and the finger trap
by Paul Danish
In selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain presented Team Obama with a fiendishly clever Chinese finger-trap, and Team Obama — including the pro-Obama part of the national press corps (which is most of it) — obligingly shoved its collective finger in up to the elbow. McCain spent the summer ridiculing Obama’s lack of experience, and the message resonated; it’s what kept McCain close in the polls. So when McCain revealed that his pick for vice-president was a 44-year-old woman who had occupied the Alaska governor’s office for less than two years and whose prior experience in elective office consisted of being a city councilwoman and mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (population 9,700), the temptation to attack her as lacking the experience to be a heartbeat away from the presidency proved irresistible.
Within hours of McCain announcing his choice of Palin, both the Obama campaign and the press launched a sweeping (and condescending) attack on her experience. In addition, the press and the angry left (but not the official Obama campaign) combined this with an ugly, often-sexist assault on her family and character — which offended most Americans’ sense of decency and fairness and ensured that Palin’s speech to the Republican National Convention would have an audience comparable to Obama’s acceptance speech. The feeding frenzy also gave her license to respond pretty much any way she wanted to.
And respond she did. Palin used the speech to skin Obama alive. She put on a clinic on how to field dress a political opponent.
But there was more to the speech than a collection of finely honed zingers. Consider these three passages in particular:
— “Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities…”
— “[T]here is much to like and admire about our opponent. But listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state senate.”
— “I came to office promising major ethics reform, to end the culture of self-dealing. And today, that ethics reform is the law… I came to office promising to control spending — by request if possible and by veto if necessary… Our state budget is under control. We have a surplus. And I have protected the taxpayers by vetoing wasteful spending: nearly half a billion dollars in vetoes. I suspended the state fuel tax and championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ for that Bridge to Nowhere… When oil and gas prices went up dramatically, and filled up the state treasury, I sent a large share of that revenue back where it belonged — directly to the people of Alaska… ”
Two things are going on here. First, the Republican candidate for vice-president is going mano-a-mano with the Democratic candidate for president over who is more experienced — which is intrinsically more damaging to the Obama-Biden ticket than it is to the McCain-Palin ticket. Why? Because when voters who can be moved by the experience issue go into the voting booth in November, they will have to decide whether they want Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office or Obama in it. For voters for whom experience is the decisive issue, that should be kind of a no-brainer.
Second, with her laundry list of accomplishments (the third passage), Palin is defining the experience issue in terms of performance instead of longevity in office.
Woody Allen once remarked that “80 percent of life is showing up.” Yes, but the other 20 percent is putting out — and putting out is usually the more important part.
When it comes to producing results in office, Palin can point to a lot more than Obama can. And the more Team Obama tries to minimize Palin’s accomplishments, the more it will draw attention to Obama’s even thinner record, which will ultimately be compared with McCain’s, as well as Palin’s.
The obvious thing for Obama to do is to ignore Palin and run against McCain. But he can’t ignore her. In the past two weeks, Palin has obtained star power comparable to Obama’s. He’s in a finger-trap with her and in a death match.
Usually it would be presumptuous for a vice-presidential candidate to compare herself with a presidential candidate. But Palin is free to put the wood to Obama on experience/performance because it was Team Obama and its allies in the media who called her out on the issue in the first place, and in a particularly nasty way at that.
Obama has spent the past 19 months running for president. He may spend the next eight weeks running for vice-president.
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