Why Christine O'Donnell Could Be More Dangerous Than Sarah Palin

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Because she has the idiot bravado of the talk show regular.

I write this 2/3rds of the way into her "debate" with Chris Coons in Newark, Delaware.*

Sarah Palin was wounded by Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson in their 2008 interviews because she seemed at some level aware of what she didn't know. She was obviously uncomfortable with Couric's "What newspapers, specifically, do you read?" question because she sensed that the topic held perils. She acted the way I would if questioned about, say, opera. ("Which ones do I like? All of them! They're so great. All those notes!")

In this debate tonight, O'Donnell has not seemed uncomfortable for one second** -- even in her most obvious dodge, about whether she really thinks evolution is a "myth." The difference is, she is a talk show regular. Among the many things wrong with talking-head gab shows, which have proliferated/ metastasized in the past generation -- they're cheap to produce, they fill air time, they make journalists into celebrities, they suit the increasing political niche-ization of cable networks -- is that they reward an affect of breezy confidence on all topics and penalize admissions of complexity, of ignorance on a specific topic, or of the need for time to think.

O'Donnell comes across as a perfect, unflappable product of the talk-show culture. Sarah Palin knows that she is bad under open questioning -- so she avoids it, speaks only to selected audiences, is interviewed only by Fox. If she were to run for president, which I've always doubted, this would make her brittle for the unavoidable main campaign. Christine O'Donnell shows that the other path can create a better, unshakably on-message product for this era.

Bill Maher thinks he has been laughing at Christine O'Donnell with his old clips of her appearances on his shows. If she wins, Bill Maher will have created her.
___
* Almost my home town. My parents more or less flipped a coin, on my dad's leaving service as a Navy doctor, on whether to join a small medical clinic in southern California or one in Newark, Del. I almost had a chance to vote in this election.

** She did seem fazed for a second when asked to name a Supreme Court decision she objected to, and couldn't. She seemed to recognize that it would have been better to name one.

*** Bonus note to Chris Coons: If you ever do this again, remove the following phrase from your vocabulary: "There's too much here to answer." Just start answering. Pretend you're on a talk show.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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