Palin Reaction

I’ve not read today’s reaction to Palin’s speech last night, but I did read some of the live blogging of it. I originally heard the end of it on Air America, and then watched ABC’s full hour of convention coverage (with spillover into the 11:00 news). So what follows is just my thoughts after sleeping on it.

Looked at from the standpoint of the “undecided” voter, my overall impression of her was fairly good. She is attractive, she spoke skillfully and she had obvious good humor. The speech was well-crafted, with several clever political turns of phrase, as well as a few instances of darned good rhetoric. In comparison to the Giuliani red meat speech that came before her, she looked moderate and reasonable (I screamed at the TV only four or five times during Palin’s speech, vs. dozens of times for the disgusting Giuliani).

But those Republicans sure do like to tell lies, don’t they? Palin’s main one was that she insists on trotting out the Bridge to Nowhere (she campaigned on building it, i.e., she was for it before she was against it) as proxy for being anti-earmark/pork-barrel (while her actual record shows that she was a national champion of acquiring earmarks and other forms of pork barrel spending for her municipality and state), her anti-corruption stance (entirely politically motivated, and doesn’t apply to her personally) and her putative anti-oil company stance (they hated her because she was raising the taxes they would have to pay on windfall profits, not because she was standing up to them on any issues that would matter to the general population — all she cared about was increasing the size of the state’s oil welfare checks to the state’s citizens, currently over $1,500 per year per citizen).

Unfortunately, my reaction isn’t even close to representative. I’m politically knowledgable — I’ve been following every ounce of news and all the revelations since the Palin VP announcement. But your general voter in the TV audience isn’t going to know those things (like the Fox-news-watching delegates in the hall, who ate it up). Thus, we are at the mercy of the traditional media to point out the enormous number of lies and misrepresentations in the speech. I don’t know if McCain’s Palin choice has insulted the media enough that they are now going to stop giving McCain the special treatment he’s always received from them or not.

But I certainly do hope they put Country First in their reporting on Palin and McCain.

I’m not holding my breath.

As to the speech itself, it was written by one of the same people who has managed to make George W. Bush look like a competent speaker. It was very well-written, and she did make the most of the rhetorical high points, seems to me. But we know perfectly well that very little (if any) of it was written by her. The text may reflect her worldview and politics and personality, but it wasn’t constructed by her personally (can you say “new-clear”?).

This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t matter to most people, but it raises for me is whether or not the candidate can speak on her feet in unstructured environments. McCain himself is pretty good at it. Obama and Biden are both very good at it. It remains to be seen whether Palin is or not. I expect she probably is in a league at least with McCain (though without the mean-old-man tone that he does so well, though a lipstick-smeared pitbull might not be so different from McCain after all). The key question is whether she can stay on message, given how out of touch with her own party’s positions on national issues she’s shown herself to be in the past (e.g., the surge and withdrawal).

She’s very bright (I wish the commentators would stop using the phrase “she’s a smart cookie,” unless of course, they would also use it to describe a clever male candidate), so she’s probably got the potential to be an excellent standard bearer for the Republican party. But you can’t cram for a Presidential election. Look how poorly experienced campaigners like Richardson did in the debates — you couldn’t ask for someone who is more familiar with foreign policy issues, but he still managed repeatedlly to say things in the debates that were just inappropriate and wrong. Richardson is no slouch on the public speaking front (though not in a league with Palin, I’d think — at least, based on last night’s example before an incredibly pumped-up friendly audience, which makes every speaker look better), but he couldn’t square the circle of deep knowledge of the issues and an ability to convey those ideas in words and gesture.

How much chance of mastering the subject matter does a gifted novice like Palin have in such a short period of time (the debate with Biden is Oct. 2nd), especially when she has to be out on the stump campaigning on a daily basis? She has shown a complete lack of interest or appreciation of foreign policy issues in her past, and the section of her speech last hight that impinged on that territory (the geographic tour of the oil-producing nations) seemed to me to be the weakest part of the speech. Indeed, I couldn’t help but contrast it with my memory of George W. Bush’s performance in one of the debates with Al Gore in 2000 when he got to speak at some length on the subject of education. Unlike the other subjects, it was clear from the light in his eyes and the coherence and commitment of his remarks that this was something he knew about intimately, something he had thoughts of his own about (presumably because education reform was the major initiative of his time as Governor of Texas). It was like a bright light had been turned on in a darkened room, and it came across as completely genuine. It was the only suggestion in any of the debates that W. actually could formulate thoughts from his experience and knowledge and construct persuasive arguments on the fly. Everything else seemed to be completely by rote, straight out of the briefing books.

In Palin’s speech, the oil independence section brought that to mind precisely because it was the point in her speech where it seemed to me that the light went out in her eyes — she was just mouthing phrases from the teleprompter. And that was where the thin-ness of her experience and interests led me to suspect that despite all the political and rhetorical skill that she displays, she won’t be able to be credible on the key issues that the Republicans themselves have placed at the center of their campaign: national defense and foreign policy.

Obama, on the other hand, has been serving on the Foreign Relations committee in the Senate and has obviously spent the last several years gaining experience and knowledge in these areas. This is why he looks completely credible when talking about these issues, because he has the experience and knowledge to give the rhetoric teeth. And Biden? A slam dunk on these issues, as this has been his portfolio for decades.

I doubt that matters with the general electorate though — it certainly didn’t with W. But perhaps the traditional media will step up to the plate and do their job as actual journalists to provide their best objective judgments. Maybe she won’t be yet another beneficiary of the media’s long-term Republican affirmative action program, i.e., the soft bigotry of low expectations.

But, once again, I’m not holding my breath.