I haven't blogged about Sarah Palin for a little while. Truthfully, I didn't know exactly what to say. After she flat-out wowed me with her acceptance speech at the RNC, I went back and watched some vids of her debates and other appearances back from her Alaska politics days. I was still impressed; she was firm, crisp, knowledgeable, personable, and eminently appealing without leaning too heavily on her charm at the expense of her considerable competence. That impression persisted during the stump speeches I watched in the days following her Big Debut.
I followed the mad scramble across media-land to tar her with an ever-escalating series of smears, the oh-so-sophisticated denigration of her background and intellect by elitists posing as populists, the disgusting dissection of her family life. I tracked the evolution of assorted slanders about how her religious views would dictate her public policies. I watched rumors and innuendos slither into the noosphere and morph into tediously-repeated talking points, then ossify into Well-Known Facts. The smell of desperation was thick in the air; clearly, she was seen as a Big Threat.
Then came Charlie Gibson...and Katie Couric.
Who the blazes was that stammering, syntactically challenged, meandering mess? Clearly, the interviews were hostile, loaded with gotcha questions and a cloying current of condescension. But that was no excuse for what I was seeing; this was someone who was vying for National Office, and the inability to fend off a couple of partisan hack "journalists" boded ill indeed for her preparedness to tackle a far more treacherous and consequential arena. It made me very, very nervous.
After seeing her folksy, well-informed, gracious, assertive and at times even eloquent performance last night, I can only conclude that what we were seeing was a candidate in the awkward process of climbing a very steep learning curve, a transition from the excellent but very locally-focused Alaskan Governor to someone whose purview would extend far beyond the borders of her home state, to encompass this Nation and its affairs in the wider world. Also, frankly, I think she was badly mishandled, as her briefers labored to metamorphose her into some kind of policy wonk by cramming her head full of talking points and memorized details. Perhaps this was necessary; she needed to be able to reply to a wide range of questions, and to think inside of far wider spaces than she was accustomed to traversing, and if she was unable to make that transition, then the campaign was going to have to make a very difficult (and probably election-costing) decision...one which it would be far better to make before she was actually in the position to fail the American people while in office. Probably so. But the process of shifting into National-caliber functioning was an excruciating one to watch, as it drained the refreshing spontaneity of the woman, damaged her self-assurance, and short-circuited that which had been so very appealing about her.
However, what emerged from that process last night was truly a sight to behold. She was every bit of the Sarah Palin who took the stage in St. Paul, five weeks ago. When it came to foreign policy, I was very pleasantly surprised by the breadth of her knowledge and, more importantly, understanding of the relevant issues (when she correctly drew the distinction between the Surge of troops and the counterinsurgency strategy which they were brought in to support, I wanted to reach into the screen and hug her!). Her command of the energy debate was comprehensive and greatly reassuring; if she kept coming back to it, this only means that she was playing to her strengths and representing the arena in which she would be expected to take a leadership role in a McCain-Palin Administration. She clearly showed herself to be up to that job. I think she struck just the right tone of populism, but with a clear respect for the free-market in her discussion of the economic crisis. I'm sure there will be complaints that she did not drill down to specifics enough on the subject, but this was not the forum for the presentation of point-by-point policies (especially as the House had still not voted on the rescue plan). And yet, general as they were, her responses on economics conveyed the distinct sense of untapped depths at the ready for subsequent interviews and discussions.
Biden turned in a competent and authoritative performance (though rife with whoppers, including a Great Big One on the question of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a stunner on the role of the Vice President within the Executive and Legislative branches), and was characteristically likable and commanding (though some grimacing grins and at least one heavy sigh rather undermined his wise elder statesman routine). But, as Palin rightly and disarmingly pointed out, he was spending inordinate amounts of time running against George Bush, which kind of put the lie to his claims to be oriented toward the future.
I think what is most interesting about this debate, and last Friday's first Presidential go-round was the degree to which they have acted as a kind of Rorschach of partisanship. Devoted followers of each wing confidently declare that their respective candidates produced resounding victories, and that the other side beclowned itself, has no business running for office, would be a disaster of Biblical proportions for the nation, yadda-yadda. For the life of me, I can't seem to see either side to have scored a decisive victory in either of these debates. One may argue nuances of presentation and content, and arrive at conclusions about who won on points, but that's hardly the same thing as the knockout punch which each side claims to have scored on the other. I would even go so far as to say that the extent to which one is convinced that one's candidate pounded his or her opponent can serve as kind of Kool Aid meter
If anything, I think the big winner last night was Sarah Palin...but not over Joe Biden. The Sarah Palin who walked away with the win last night was the one who had pulled the unenviable duty of competing with herself, with the bumbling, incompetent and insecure version of herself who seemed to have abducted and replaced the sharp and energetic woman we met at the RNC, and who Alaskans have known for quite a bit longer. That Bizarro-Palin was a sore drag on the McCain campaign, and I am exceedingly glad to see her go. It remains to be seen if the new/old Sarah will be able to re-ignite the dynamism which she had originally brought to the ticket. I hope so. If today's interview is any indication, the Sarah who took the stage last night is the one to whom we will be treated in the weeks to come, and McCain's campaign will be the richer for her.