Saturday, August 30, 2008

Disjointed thoughts about Sarah Palin

I'm 75% percent sure that the choice of Sarah Palin will prove to be a disaster for John McCain, and 25% terrified that it was a stroke of genius.

From all I can tell, McCain really wanted Lieberman but was told that Lieberman wouldn't fly. McCain dislikes Mitt Romney, an insiders' favorite, plus Romney had other strikes against him. Other plausible candidates seemed blah. The deadline was looming. Maybe the Maverick was a little spooked by the How Many Houses affair, by Joe Biden and what was generally a strong week for Obama. Choosing Palin was abrupt, hurried, desperate and/or flippant. I've heard the words "irresponsible" and "gimmick" used, and they seem appropriate. The choice was all about making a splash and winning a news cycle or two, not at all about governing. Gravitas ain't everything, and it is viewed erratically through the prism of gender, but there is such a thing as gravitas, and Palin lacks it. She simply doesn't sound ready for prime time, in my judgment.

Not everybody shares my judgment, of course. What scares me is to remember that America is a country where Kelly Clarkson is a pop star and Ornette Coleman is an unknown. Not to mention, the country where 50 million people or so voted for George W. Bush. A lot of Americans don't care about gravitas. A lot of Americans like rooting for the underdog, snatched out of obscurity into the limelight.

A lot of Americans also confuse feminism with chivalry. It's tempting to belittle Palin for being a beauty-pageant winner, "just another pretty face," but it would be really easy for a Democrat, especially Joe Biden, to get into trouble with that approach. Remember the backlash Rick Lazio got when he raised his voice to Hillary Clinton in a debate? That would be as nothing if Joe Biden insulted Sarah Palin, doe-eyed mother of a Down's syndrome baby and yadda yadda yadda. I don't know what would be more grotesque, the idea that John Kerry went down to defeat because he was perceived as a traitor, or that Obama-Biden went down because they were perceived as hostile to women and/or families.

My wife told me a joke she saw online today: when you look at all Sarah Palin's highly conservative views on guns, oil, abortion, and all the rest, she is "Cheney without the Dick." That's hardly the greatest joke, but it made me think about the fact that Cheney and Palin are both Westerners. Palin takes being a Westerner to new extremes; I don't think she's ever lived outside of Alaska, except for attending college at the ancient ivy-covered enclave that is the University of Idaho. Palin's husband, I just learned today, is a commercial fisherman. Palin and Cheney share a basic disdain for government, a reverence for the market, a strong commitment to the rights of individuals and of property. They are the vanguard of conservatism in a lot of ways. Democrats feel we are being progressive, in a literal sense, i.e. advancing progess, being pioneers, fulfilling America's destiny, when we push for the rights of women, of ethnic minorities, of gays and lesbians. In sum, you might say, when we identify with cosmopolitans. Republicans still idealize and identify with the old frontier of ranchers and loggers and wildcatting oil men. To Democrats, Barack Obama embodies America's best future. To Republicans, Sarah Palin embodies it just as much.

Like much of the liberal blogosphere, I've thought a lot, mostly in negative terms, about the culture of Washington insiderdom. It's not small-d democratic, but also not Capital D or Capital R, per se. It's fundamentally self-interested, concerned with its own status and prerogatives. I believe Beltway society (the media especially) has bent over backwards to be kind to John McCain this year. They promote his image as a maverick, give him loads of good will for his POW experience, and loads of column inches about it, but he earned this measure of favor by being in Congress for 30 years and schmoozing the right people. If anything, the DC Establishment exalts the resume`: what school you went to, what job you held and for how long, who you know in high places that will vouch for you. If Beltway society stands for anything, has any integrity, it will rise up in near-unison to oppose Sarah Palin. If Sally Quinn didn't like the Clintons....

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