My prediction about Sarah Palin

Unless you have seen it first first-hand, as part of the press scrum or as a campaign staffer, it is almost impossible to imagine how grueling the process of running for national office is. Everybody gets exhausted. The candidates have to answer questions and offer views roughly 18 hours a day, and any misstatement on any topic can get them in trouble. Why do candidates so often stick to a stump speech that they repeat event after event and day after day? Because they've worked out the exact way to put their positions on endless thorny issues -- Iraq, abortion, the Middle East, you name it -- and they know that creative variation mainly opens new complications.

If someone is campaigning for the presidency or vice presidency, there's an extra twist. That person has to have a line of argument to offer on any conceivable issue. Quick, without pausing in the next ninety seconds, tell me what you think about: the balance of relations between Taiwan and mainland China, and exactly what signals we're sending to Hamas, and what we think about Russia's role in the G-8 and potentially in NATO, and where North Korea stands on its nuclear pledges -- plus Iran while we're at it, plus the EU after the Irish vote, plus cap-and-trade as applied to India and China, and what's the right future for South Ossetia; and let's not even start on domestic issues.

The point about every one of those issues is that there is a certain phrase or formulation that might seem perfectly innocent to a normal person but that can cause a big uproar. Without going into the details, there is all the difference in the world between saying "Taiwan and mainland China" versus "Taiwan and China." The first is policy as normal; the second -- from an important US official -- would light up the hotline between DC and Beijing.

The further point is that not even the most accomplished person knows all this off the top of his or her head. Example: Barack Obama. He is a quick study and has been campaigning very hard for 18 months. But this summer, when he tried to offer a reassuring message about his commitment to Israeli security with his AIPAC speech, he made a rookie error by getting the standard phraseology slightly wrong.

Let's assume that Sarah Palin is exactly as smart and disciplined as Barack Obama. But instead of the year and a half of nonstop campaigning he has behind him, and Joe Biden's even longer toughening-up process, she comes into the most intense period of the highest stakes campaign with absolutely zero warmup or preparation. If she has ever addressed an international issue, there's no evidence of it in internet-land.

The smartest person in the world could not prepare quickly enough to know the pitfalls, and to sound confident while doing so, on all the issues she will be forced to address. This is long before she gets to a debate with Biden; it's what the press is going to start out looking for.

So the prediction is: unavoidable gaffes. The challenge for the McCain-Palin campaign is to find some way to defuse them ahead of time, since Socrates, Machiavelli, and Clausewitz reincarnated would themselves make errors in her situation. And the challenge for Democrats is to lead people to think, What if she were in charge?, without being bullies about it. 

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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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