The Struggles of Sarah Palin

What's been interesting - in a watching-from-behind-your-hands sort of way, if you're a conservative who wishes her well - about Palin's interviews with Charlie Gibson and especially Katie Couric is the way they've provided examples of almost every single way that an inexperienced politician can struggle in the media spotlight. Most of the attention has focused, justly, on Palin's flat-out incoherent answers to some of Couric's questions, and her difficulties deflecting obvious "gotcha" situations (Gibson on the Bush Doctrine, Couric asking what newspapers she reads and asking her to name non-Roe Supreme Court decisions with which she disagrees, etc.). But there are other, more subtle dynamics at work as well. In the Gibson interview, as a number of people pointed out, there was her tendency to answer directly in situations where a more practiced pol would obfuscate a bit. (Her response on whether bringing Georgia into NATO would require going to war with Russia, for instance, was a classic case of giving a straightforward answer where a little "the goal is to make sure it wouldn't come to that, Charlie" would have gone a long way - even if her straightforwardness was a refreshing reminder of why putting Georgia into NATO might not be such a hot idea.) And in both interviews, there was an inability to make the talking points she's obviously been forced to memorize in a hurry sound smooth and spontaneous, rather than rote and overrehearsed - or in the case of the whole "Russia is close to Alaska" fiasco (and whichever McCain aide is responsible for that piece of idiocy should never, ever work in politics again), to make deeply stupid talking points sound semi-plausible, rather than, well, deeply stupid.

But her struggles with Couric's questions about Roe and the right to privacy are perhaps the most telling - not just because of how Palin answered them, but because of how Biden answered a similar question. As Ramesh and Yuval point out, judged purely on substance, Biden's answer was much more of a hash than Palin's statement that she believes in a right to privacy but opposes Roe. (This is not, repeat not, an inconsistent position.) But Biden couched his answer in terms that made it sound like he possessed deep knowledge on the issue (as I'm sure he thinks he does), whereas Palin's response made it clear that she did not. And where media appearances are concerned, that makes an enormous difference.

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For those conservatives who claim to see no problems with Palin's performance, of course, this is precisely what's so outrageous about the anti-Palin backlash: She's being judged, they complain, less on her record and her positions than on her ability to BS her way through "gotcha" questions from hostile interviewers, and she's being found wanting because she isn't as practiced in the art of the on-air dodge as more experienced politicians. (Thus Joe Carter's pro-Palin complaint, for instance, that he "cannot make the leap in logic required to believe that proficiency on television is evidence of capable leadership.")

I think this view is wrong for several reasons: Because Palin's relatively limited record in politics magnifies the importance of her public comments for anyone who's trying to get a handle on who this woman is and whether she's ready for high office; because her performance has been so comprehensively lousy that it has to reflect, to some degree, on her knowledge base and her understanding of policy as well as on her TV chops; and because like it or not, "proficiency on television" is simply a prerequisite for capable leadership in a mass democracy. But there's a sense in which the apologists for her performance are getting something right: In the process of performing very, very badly on national television, Palin is holding up a mirror to the rest of the political world, and revealing how the mix of talking points, bluster, obfuscation and BS that nearly all national politicians traffic in as a matter of course sounds when it's filtered through someone who isn't practiced in it, and isn't ready for the spotlight. Her performances reflect badly on her readiness for the vice presidency, no question - but they reflect badly on our whole compromised, spin-happy political class as well.