I keep hearing the same, troubling refrain from GOP commentators today: "Let Palin Be Palin." Maybe Bill Kristol started it, with a column of the same title over at The Weekly Standard on Sept. 8, urging that McCain's camp not get distracted by old revelations about Palin but instead let her answer the charges herself: "McCain's choice of Palin was McCain being McCain. Now his campaign will have to let Palin be Palin.Today, in the New York Times, he said again that Palin needs to be allowed to be herself:
Fine, Bill Kristol thinks she's still able to save the party, all evidence to the contrary. He thinks John McCain is made of sunshine and rainbows, too, and everyone's entitled to their opinion. But Kristol's words are spreading like wildfire: today, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece with that "Let Palin be Palin" bit of advice included, along with a quote from a Republican strategist (Keith Olbermann says it's Karl Rove) who said Palin's problem in the Couric interview was that she was overprepared. Tonight, I heard the same argument and the same quote on "Hardball" from Michelle Bernard, who echoed Kristol's argument down to the very words (a discussion in which Salon's own Joan Walsh was featured and offered some good counterpoint).
This is a dangerous argument in a few ways. One, of course, is the danger that it might work. If Palin looks better at the debate Thursday -- and you have to expect she will, after the drubbing she's taken from all quarters this week and the reportedly family-friendly retreat she's now made to John McCain's 4th or 5th house in Sedona -- then these same pundits and friends of the GOP will be able to say, well, of course she did better, because the McCain camp finally let the pit bull off the leash, so to speak.
It's not the worst part of this, though. The worst part is that this is an old story. When a candidate stops meeting expectations, one of the first places a party lays blame is at the feet of his or her associates. Remember the campaign shake-up in 2004? A direct result of people saying John Kerry was underperforming. Better yet, remember election 2000, when the news of Al Gore being advised by Naomi Wolf leaked? Republicans mocked him mercilessly for needing advice on being the alpha dog, while Democrats bemoaned the bad PR of it all. But who did we blame, ultimately? Al Gore. Here, the blame is getting directed at the bodiless entity that is "the McCain campaign," as though it's a monster that lives and breathes (which, OK, probably it does) completely independently of the man who should be running it.
If someone is holding Sarah Palin back, and that person is working for the McCain campaign, then, effectively, John McCain is keeping Sarah Palin away from the media. It shouldn't take more than a single phone call -- which we know the senator is quite able to make -- to get this all cleared up. Yet despite Kristol saying he's heard McCain has "expressed unhappiness with his staff's handling of Palin," her availability to the media -- or even to the common voter -- has seen almost no change.
So this boils down to another tactical display by the McCain camp: blame the messenger, they're saying. The campaign is what's holding her back -- it's the politics, not the politicians! I don't believe it for a second, but I do think this is the most creative way of changing expectations for the debate -- and the rest of the campaign -- that I've yet seen.
The problem, of course, with letting Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin is that there's no Sarah Palin there. The leader that Republicans thought they were getting, this feisty, experienced executive with strong family values, has proven to have little worthwhile experience, almost no bite in the media, and a personal life drawn from a soap opera. If you let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin right now, instead of the cardboard cutout the McCain campaign is working to create around the idea they originally sold, the result will be the deafening silence that comes after a thermonuclear blast clears the air -- and in the wreckage, you'll find all the pieces of the McCain campaign and the few conservatives who can still stomach the idea of a Palin presidency.
Incidentally, the Let Palin be Palin bit echoes a speech from an episode of "The West Wing" with the same title. In it, the president's chief of staff basically lectures the president about being hesitant to take bold actions, and they pledge to reverse course, do more of what they want, not be ruled by political concerns, and to raise the debate in Washington. I'm not actually sure the McCain camp wants people watching this clip and comparing what's happening out there with what happens here, which is why I'm gleefully posting the clip from YouTube: