Palin and the cringe reflex

McCain 2008 Palin
The fried onions were better than her answer. (AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)



Over Labor Day weekend, during the first burst of Palin-mania (remember that?), I played the contrarian and suggested in this space that her presence on the Republican ticket was actually "a cosmic joke on the electorate." Little did I know.

The latest misadventure of America's not ready for prime time player transpired at a cheesesteak store in Philadelphia the other night. As she awaited her order (with fried onions), a Temple University grad student asked her whether she thought it would be appropriate for American troops to cross the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, in pursuit of terrorists. She quickly declared, in a response captured on video and circulated by CBS News, "If that's what we have to do to stop terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should."

Bingo. She had just endorsed Barack Obama's position - the same position that John McCain had sought to ridicule in the first presidential debate one night earlier. But this incident was hardly shocking, given her recent string of performance pratfalls - such as her inability to talk coherently about the Wall Street bailout or her alleged foreign policy credentials, or to cite a single instance when McCain ever fought hard for Wall Street oversight ("I'll try to find you some, and I'll bring them to ya").

Her Saturday night statement about invading Pakistan, an impromptu Palin doctrine, put McCain in a very awkward position. There he was on Friday night, sneeringly lecturing Obama about how naive it is to publicly discuss America's security options ("You don't say that out loud")....yet here was his running mate saying it out loud. Clearly, he had to clean up after her somehow. So when the subject came up yesterday, during an interview on ABC News, he did the usual. He blamed the media for the whole thing.

"She was in a conversation with some young man," he said. "...In all due respect, people going around and...sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that's - that's a person's position...This is a free country, and I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Gov. Palin. And I hope you wouldn't either."

Sticking a microphone while conversations are being held...Imagine such a thing! Last I heard, Palin was running for vice president, and when a candidate for high office ventures out in public and makes remarks about national and foreign issues, those remarks do tend to get covered, 24/7. This is merely the latest iteration of the venerable American tradition of trying to hold candidates accountable. And since, in Palin's case, the McCain people barely seem to have vetted her...well, somebody's got to do it.

Given the fact that Palin reveals her ill-preparedness every time she speaks, it's understandable that McCain would seek to exempt her from the requirements of public exposure. Witness this response to Katie Couric, who had asked her to explain why Alaska's proximity to Russia qualifies her for the vice presidency: "Our next door neighbors are foreign counties. They're in the state that I am the executive of...It's very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America. Where—where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just - right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to—to our state."

Less widely circulated was her response to another Couric question. Couric suggested that perhaps it would be wiser for Congress to simply give $700 billion directly to economically-struggling citizens, rather than to Wall Street. Before you read Palin's non-response (she never answered the question), please buckle your seatbelts, because this will be a bumpy ride:

"That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that."

It's not easy to make George W. Bush sound eloquent by comparison, but Palin does the job. It's no wonder that even the conservative opiners are starting to recoil. Rich Lowry calls her performances "dreadful." Mona Charen calls them "atrocious." And Kathleen Parker, columnist and early Palin fan, grudgingly concluded the other day on the National Review website that Palin is "clearly out of her league...I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted."

So the big question is, what are the McCain people going to do with her on Thursday night, when she's scheduled for 90 minutes with Joe Biden? Short of contriving a crisis in Alaska that cancels the debate and sends her home, she'll have to duel with a guy who (notwithstanding his verbal loquaciousness and propensity for talking himself into a gaffe) is already viewed by most Americans as far more qualified than she to assume the presidency in an emergency. Every poll documents this fundamental perception. He knows a lot about national and foreign policy, and he arguably talks too much; she knows virtually nothing beyond the talking points that are drilled into her head, and she delivers them in disconnected fragments.

Biden, of course, will have to sufficiently rein himself in, lest he look like an overbearing bully. Palin will have the advantage of low expectations, which means that if she can merely show up, get her nouns and verbs and predicates in order, focus heavily on extolling McCain and maligning Obama, and forge some kind of emotional connection with the audience (I'm just like you, my family has the same worries as you), then the GOP message crafters will be able to argue that she did surprisingly fine.

The problem she has right now, however, is that her lack of qualifications arguably undercut her credibility as a salesperson for McCain and critic of Obama. Her mission, these last few weeks, was to polish her own creds so that she would be viewed as credible during the veep debate. That mission has not succeeded. It raises the stakes for her on Thursday night - and, more importantly, it raises the stakes for McCain.

As conservative commentator William Kristol, a McCain booster, acknowledged in his New York Times column this morning, "If she does poorly, it will reflect on his judgment." And if McCain, who is trying to sell himself as the seasoned, experienced candidate, is ultimately faulted by the voters for his judgment, the Republican ticket is doomed. And Sarah Palin will have likely eaten her last Philadelphia least for the forseeable future.


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