Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate: Apparently, Not Imploding Is Enough If You're "Just Like Us"

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Sarah Palin didn't trip and fall on her way to or from the podium. She didn't go on a nonsensical, grammar-defying journey through the English language while talking about her state's proximity to Russia or the Wall Street bailout. And she didn't demonstrate a moment of shocking ignorance, like failing to know what the Bush Doctrine was or being unable to name a single Supreme Court decision.

And because Sarah Palin didn't implode on the stage last night in St. Louis, her performance was hailed as a success. The New York Daily News trumpeted, "Sarah Holds Her Own," and the New York Post announced, "Sarah Show: Pit Bull Hangs Tough in Clash With Biden," and even the New York Times and Washington Post portrayed her performance as generally positive.

Really? Because she didn't self-destruct on stage, she is a success?

If that was all there was to the reaction to Palin's performance, if it was only that the bar was set so low that she is being lauded simply for not majorly screwing up onstage, that would speak volumes about how we, as a country, have fallen so far in our expectations of who our leaders should be. But the reality of the reaction was far worse.

In fact, Palin's folksy, "gee whiz, I'm just a small town hockey mom and all of you Washington folk sure are full of it" approach reflected a clear strategy, the idea that people would be drawn to support her because she's "just like us."

Let me go on the record with something: I went to a pretty good undergraduate university, graduated in the top ten percent of my law school class (and was the editor of the school's entertainment and sports law review), and am a decent enough writer that the good folks at allow me to blog, and yet I don't want someone "just like me" to be president. I want someone better than me. And 99.9999 percent of us should, too.

Palin is not running to be the vice president of the PTA or the local country club (or even to be the governor of the 47th biggest state with a population roughly equal to that of Columbus, Ohio). She is running to be the vice president of the United States, and if statistics hold, that would mean that there is a decent chance she would one day be the president. That means she would, among many other things, hold in her hand the power to launch nuclear attacks, send our troops into combat, meet and negotiate with world leaders, set the strategy for fighting terrorism, direct the government's participation in the economy (and how to handle the current credit market shutdown that is threatening to send the country into a tailspin), determine how we will address the crises we are experiencing with energy and global warming, and provide leadership during good times and bad.

The power and responsibility of the president of the United States is awesome. It requires a leader with intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to process huge amounts of data in a variety of areas and then make sophisticated and complicated determinations, as well as a need to see things with a depth and clarity that most average people lack. We've seen over the last eight years what happens when someone obviously out of his depth was thrown into the position. Virtually every aspect of American life -- the economy, our foreign policy, our military, our energy policy, etc. -- is in crisis, in no small part due to the ineptitude of George W. Bush.

It is ludicrous to believe that Sarah Palin has anything even approaching the intelligence and knowledge necessary to do the job. And that was demonstrated in St. Louis last night.

At the debate, people were apparently charmed by her folksiness. They loved how she told moderator Gwen Ifill and her opponent Joe Biden that she wasn't going to answer their questions. But what she was really saying was that if she didn't know the answer to a question, rather than make a fool of herself like she did with Charles Gibson or Katie Couric, she would instead say something about which she could provide an answer. Shouldn't we be worried that a candidate for vice president is so limited in knowledge and expertise that there are whole areas she can't properly talk about? That she would, as Tina Fey so brilliantly said it on Saturday Night Live, need a lifeline?

Palin spent the debate spewing talking points. She sounded like a newscaster, reading copy provided by someone else. She didn't demonstrate any depth of insight, knowledge or understanding about the problems the U.S. faces. When confronted with arguments, she couldn't do any thinking on her own. She simply reverted back to a talking point, and sometimes not even the right one. Often, it seemed not like she was choosing to answer a different question, but as if she didn't understand the question she was supposed to answer. She hammered home outright lies and distortions, as if saying them again and again with conviction would make them true. I started to wonder if she even really knew that what she was saying wasn't true. I started to feel like she was Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, signing off with "Go f--- yourself, San Diego," just because it was on the teleprompter.

But really, in the end, all this isn't even about Palin. It's about us, as a country. Any society with its priorities straight would have watched Palin last night and, regardless of ideological beliefs, ruled her out as a candidate for the vice presidency. It's not about her lack of experience (although you could certainly make that argument), nor is it about her extreme right wing beliefs (which were nicely hidden last night), but it is all about her lack of ability. The fact that she is ordinary when the job calls for extraordinary.

The fact that the lead story this morning is that Palin "held her own" with Biden rather than that she was obviously completely out of her depth says a lot more about us than it does about her. It says that we haven't learned our lesson after choosing an intellectually inferior president for the last eight years, after rejecting Al Gore in 2000 for being "wooden" or a "policy wonk." I'm sorry, but when did being president require the office holder to be the life of the party? Shouldn't we want a smart person in the job? Wouldn't that be a good thing?

It should be, but what the response to last night's debate tells us is that it's not. At least not in the minds of too many Americans. Rather than reward knowledge and intellect in this country, we reject it, saying that it makes the candidate "arrogant" or "boring" or "elitist" (or, as two Southern Republicans referred to Barack Obama, "uppity," but that is a whole other discussion). No, the U.S. has become an anti-intellectual society that scorns intelligence and ability and wants leaders that are "just like them."

Well, as I often say, democracy works, just not always how you want it to. If you want someone "like us," you'll get someone "like us." And most of "us" would be way out of our depth if thrown into the White House. Again, we had someone "like us" the last eight years. How did that work out?

I thought that maybe, just maybe, the cavalcade of severe problems facing this country would refocus voters a bit and make them realize that we need someone better than us to find solutions. But the reaction to last night's debate shows that we really haven't changed at all.

The fact that Palin's performance last night was not roundly dismissed as that of an unexceptional, unqualified, unknowledgable, unintelligent joke is an embarrassment for this country. Now, apparently, not being a total train wreck is enough to garner accolades for a debate performance. Knowledge, insight and the ability to reason are, apparently, irrelevant. The key is just spitting out prewritten talking points and showing that, aw shucks, you're just another hockey mom from the heartland of America who is "just like us." I think that's great the next time we're looking for someone to lead the local hockey team supporter's club. But to be vice president and confront the crises facing the United States, I'd prefer someone not like me at all, but, rather, a lot better than me. And certainly a lot better than Sarah Palin.