Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 30, 2008 2:21AM

There's No Palin There

Rate: 17 Flag

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:

With respect to his campaign, McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her — aides who seem to have succeeded in importing to the Palin campaign the trademark defensive crouch of the Bush White House. McCain picked Sarah Palin in part because she’s a talented politician and communicator. He needs to free her to use her political talents and to communicate in her own voice.

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:

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politics, mccain, campaign, palin

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You know, I try really hard to listen to the Republican pundits and to factor out their biases and try to believe they've got wisdom to offer. But at times like this, when it's obvious there is nothing to recommend, one learns a lot about the judgment of these guys. There are some who are wise and brave and speaking out. The rest are losing their credibility, at least with people like me who view the political landscape as a continuous field of choices to be considered. Maybe with their base all that's valued is blind allegiance. But then, that's probably what got us in this mess in the first place. A bit of healthy skepticism would have gone a long way toward not having us trust this mess. Well, actually, the skepticism was there. People just don't look to the real leaders.

Good clip, by the way.
What about letting McCain be McCain?

How refereshing a primary campaign he ran. Talking to and joking with reporters. Now everything is staged and reporters can't get access.

Is this how he'd run the White House if elected? Shutting down even further the flow of information about the people's business to the people?
Oh, love 'ems The West Wing!

Let Palin be Palin, indeed.
I think they ought to let her go on Rachael Ray and make moose jerky. They should let her give cookies and lemonade to abortion protesters. They should let her get out there and say she has foreign policy experience because she has a set of Russian nesting dolls painted like the Spice Girls.

Let Palin be Palin. There isn't a person in this country on either side that doesn't know she's being handled so thoroughly that her bananas are bruised.

And McCain, too! If he wants to bring up his numbers, he should run a series of ads that are nothing but his interviews with Jon Stewart. It's no secret he's pandering.

I'm all for putting them all in the ring. Let us see who all of them really are, for better or worse.
There's no Palin there? I think there is. I think what we're seeing on Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson's embarrassing interviews is Palin. No wonder they've locked her down.
One of the filthiest Machiavellan ploys is to arrange things so people come to certain conclusions or impressions, believing it was their power to reason and their free will which got them there. Not shrewd orchestration. And then they find themselves in a box. Like Gore. Like Kerry. Gov. Palin may well emerge from the current conventional wisdom the way she emerged from obscurity to flat-out wow the Republicans. (One of the few times you will find Palin and wisdom in the same sentence - such as.) Thanks for your thoughtful post and the bonus clip, too.
Not to be too cynical, but Governor Palin's potential entertainment value is just about too big to estimate.

One hopes that she lingers on the GOP sidelines for a long, long time. It's been too long since we had an Anita Bryant type, and you just know that Sarah is itching to plant her sensible pump in her mouth.
Look, they have to come up with a reason why Palin is performing badly, one that isn't basically "because she sucks." They can't blame the media (though they try) because Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson are not known to be tough interviewers, they are the kind of interview that anyone should expect a candidate to handle, indeed enjoy and prosper from. The fact that Palin didn't needs to be explained somehow.

So what are they left with? They can blame Palin, or blame her "handlers." I do think there is some element of truth to the notion that she IS being "handled" and the handling is doing as much to damage her as the fact that she's just plain out of her league.

I think the operative question to ask when someone makes this argument is "why does she need so much handling in the first place?" Then you get at what the real answer is: because she sucks and McCain and his people have no confidence in her.
Great blog. Thomas I agree - what we've seen IS Palin. She has proven she is vastly out of her depth. The public has seen it and no one outside of GOP diehards and nutjobs can take her remotely seriously as a national politician. All the McCain camp has left is what they always had with Palin - an act. And it's already been seen through.
I guess we just have to wait and see what happens Thursday night to see how much she's been practicing. I hope that Gwen Ifill is able to direct or redirect some of the non answer answers, but my guess is that Palin will just be repeating the same talking points over and over.
I keep having to blog-and-dash, and then I come back to find all of these wonderful comments. So excuse the long (and delayed!) reply.

Kent, good point. I can think of a conservative commentator who I'd listen to/read, but I can't think of a Republican commentator who I'd believe, because of that blind allegiance factor.

Gary, I wonder what's left of McCain, these days. Comparing his 2000 campaign to the one we're seeing now makes me think the man's had a brain injury of some kind -- or that he just wants to be president so badly that he's willing to do whatever he's told it will take. That leads into Jodi's point -- they are both probably being overhandled, but it seems like McCain should have the power to stop that madness, and since he's making the choice not to... this is the McCain that's left.

Stacey, I'm with you on the Machievellian aspect of some of this year's campaign -- ends justifying means, indeed -- but I'm not sure I believe that Gore or Kerry or even Palin would have claimed (whether true or not) that their own choices led to their demise. It's sort of reverse-Machiavelli: make the ends fit the means, I guess.
Gordon -- ha! yes, her entertainment value is high, so long as she remains a joke and not the next VP of the U.S.

Liz, I totally agree, this is their only way out -- which is why it's both brilliant and frightening. I wish I'd see more people asking why she needs so much handling, but so far all the discussions I've seen have just let the Let Palin be Palin question hang.

B.D., I think it's possible at this point that the Couric pieces that have yet to be released may cast a considerable pall over Palin's debate performance -- when she can't name a single Supreme Court case or anything she's been reading about foreign policy or politics, that's headline news, to me. But yes, wait-and-see is the strategy of the day.
I'm reminded of Hillary's rise in popularity when she was seen knocking back shots and beer. Although no one doubted HC's intelligence, she became one with America with that simple act. Don't be surprised to see Palin's popularity rise after the debates when she appeals to Main St. America. Most of us want someone smarter and more aware than we are running the country, but we know that's not the always the case. With government botching the job so noticeably, what better time for a "I could do better than those guys" message to gain traction. Beware! I see a huge backlash on the horizon.
Outstanding article and comments.

What would Jesus say about selling out to win an election? "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (The conservatives have no corner on Christianity, after all. In fact, their leaders seem not to get it, period.)
Rove said Palin was "over prepared"??? If that's the case then I'd hate to see what her being "under prepared" entails. Maybe we'll see how "prepared" she is Thursday night when she crosses swords with Joe Biden. They've got her cloistered in Arizona, cramming her head full of talking points, trying to cover every possible angle. I say, "Keep cramming her head full"...by the time she reaches the debate, her head will be buzzing like a bees nest, and I know what it's like being overloaded with info to the point of becoming stupid. If it can happen to me, it can definitely happen to her and if so, it's a guaranteed bet she'll melt down at the debate. Here's hoping so.
The fear of a backlash, DT, is what's keeping me up at nights. Because the Palin pendulum seems to swing wildly: everyone loves her, everyone hates her, etc. So I'm afraid that, like you say, by some simple action she'll set it back on the opposite path.

Barbara, fascinating observation -- and you're right, they don't seem to get it, but they do seem to use it.

Joe, I think you're talking about the same kind of over-prep that Rove was -- and I agree, I'm all for it. Meltdown city, man! That's my great hope for Thursday. But we'll see.
"down to the very words" - Since Goldwater lost his race, part of the Republican machine has been this tactic of having speaking points and nomenclature all locked down. The Left has always derailed itself with allowing everyone to talk about everything all the time, giving equal weight to every issue from every constituent, while the Right has had a "shut up and get on the bus" strategy: you stick to our talking points and the party line and we'll take care of your agenda.

And "overprepared" isn't the word: over-crammed with unfamiliar, new data is more like it. Pit bull my butt, she's a yapping Chihuahua who is going to get run over by the big dogs.
Jack, I hope you're right, and I love the dog analogy. And yeah -- the GOP has had much better luck over the years with getting everyone on message. How do they do it? By abandoning independent thought? And how did they get John McCain on board?
The Right simply made it clear that they were going to have a coherent philosophical stance and stuck to it rigorously. The Left (Liberals more so than Radicals) feel that fair play is a component of the just world they seek, so until they allow every voice to be heard on all issues they can't proceed. To allow an overarching philosophy would fly in the face of free speech and free thought. The truth is that the well-oiled machine wins the day in most cases. Democracy is a cumbersome thing (sigh).
So true, loki. I need to remind myself that, overall, the Democratic party in the U.S. is actually one of the most unified voting blocs in the world. It just seems very disorganized sometimes next to the Republicans.
I am sitting here reading all that is posted and I must tell you that I am scared to death with this woman. That backlash thing worries me to no ends. If we end up with this woman, with John McCain's health being a bit shaky, we are going to be in one pickle. Hell, I don't know how we will fare with him in good health with her as his VP. I, too, feel that John McCain has no respect for the American people to place an idiot like Sarah Palin on his ticket. It's like he really doesn't even care. This woman is out of her league, completely. And the nerve of the so called, intelligent, pundits who continue to defend her by calling out "gotcha politics" is unreal. If they can't even tell the truth about how uninformed she is, how can people believe anything they say? Then McCain goes out on the trail and just rambles on and on not really thinking whether he's lying or if he has forgotten some facts and he just seems to have completely lost it. I'm so afraid of a lot of these Americans, they vote against their best interest as if it is a game and we have so much to lose if the two of them get into office. Having had to serve abroad with my husband, I realize how hard it is trying to talk American politics on a good day......but with Sarah Palin, oh my God, we'll be the laugh of the world not to even dare imagine what will happen right here in our own country. She just makes me work harder in getting out the vote; but I'm still scared as hell that they will vote her in. And while they are cramming her head with politics, I hope they manage to toss in a bit of grammar and vocabulary.
Palin is simply following the Atwater/Ailes/Rove playbook. Roger Ailes wrote a book 20 or so years ago titled "You Are the Message." The basic idea: the substance doesn't matter, it's how you say it. He claims credit for getting Reagan back on track for the debates after his "hanlders" over-prepped him. Ailes advises candidates to have a few stock responses - talking points - and say them over and over again no matter what the question. on another point - has any one considered that they are really hiding Palin so the CIA or some agency we don't even know about can implant receivers in her brain so Cheney can control her like a puppet? Just kidding, but ....
Why is it that everybody is scared of hurting Palin's feelings? If
she were a man they would not handle her with kids gloves. Why do they have to be careful of what they say or how they act? After all, she is running for the second most powerful post in the world.
Wake up America! This woman acts like a bumbling idiot, she has
never answered, directly, a question that was asked, she goes on and on and says NOTHING! Oh yes, she distracts you with her gestures, her fingers do the talking. GOD HELP AMERICA! Just think, SHE WILL BE ONE HEARTBEAT FROM BEING THE PRESIDENT OF OUR COUNTRY.