About thirteen minutes into last Thursday’s vice presidential debate, Republican candidate Sarah Palin declared that she was not going to answer the questions the way her opponent, Joe Biden or Gwen Ifill, the moderator, would have liked. Instead, she said, she was going to talk straight to the American people. By the end of the debate, it became clear that Sarah Palin’s straight talk was little more than rambling, disjointed answers, folksy anecdotes about small-town life, and political talking points. It also became clear that Sarah Palin has little regard for the intelligence of the American people.
Take, for example, her answer to the question about taxation. After pointing out that paying taxes is not patriotic, she went on to state that she and her husband, Todd, are middle class. While it’s difficult to get hold of exactly how much Sarah Palin earned as governor of Alaska, at least one source reports that she earned $125,000, and that her and her husband’s assets add up to a net worth of over $1 million. However, despite her six-figure salary (which is roughly half of her family income), Sarah Palin insists on painting herself as an everyday, middle-class American. Now, I’m not sure what planet the Alaska governor inhabits but here on planet Earth, a six-figure salary puts its earner above joe-sixpack status. Yet Sarah Palin spoke as if the American people are not expected to know this—in much the same way they were not expected to see any irony in the fact that the Republican party (which is trying to sell itself as the people’s party) mocked community organizers at their recent convention. In keeping with this line of thinking, Sarah Palin actually said in the debate that the Republican party puts people first. Of course, anyone who remembers 2005 would have been forgiven for asking if she was talking about the same party that so notoriously failed to put the people of New Orleans first.
Such hypocrisy seems par for the course for the Republican party, so there’s nothing new here. After all, this is the party whose presidential candidate owns more houses than he can count—including a $12 million mansion in Arizona—yet accuses his Democratic opponent of being elitist. But again, that sort of hypocrisy has become commonplace in presidential campaigns. At the end of the day, it was Sarah Palin’s utter failure—or refusal—to even engage with the moderator’s questions or her opponent’s rebuttals that was most insulting to the American people’s intelligence. Several times she ignored the question outright and answered whatever she pleased. For example, when given the chance to rebut Biden’s charge that Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain supported “deregulation almost across the board,” Palin responds, “Oh, I’m still on the tax thing . . ..” Clearly, even when the discussion had moved on, Palin insisted on answering only the questions she wanted. Why?
At another point, after the moderator had asked—and Joe Biden had answered—a question about subprime mortgages and legislation that had made it harder for debt-strapped Americans to declare bankruptcy, Palin decided she would rather “talk about again my record on energy versus your ticket’s energy ticket also,” because she thought it was “important to come back to.” First of all, what kind of incoherent, rambling answer is that? Secondly, how could she have expected to get away with so blatantly not answering the question? But she didn’t miss a beat. She started talking about how “East Coast politicians” are keeping energy-rich states like Alaska from tapping into their energy resources, thereby leaving the US dependent on foreign oil while sending around $700 billion dollars to foreign countries who don’t necessarily like us. Although Sarah Palin’s energy-policy answer had nothing to do with the issue being discussed nor the challenge her opponent had just put on the table, she seemed unperturbed. She was on a roll. Throughout this charade, in fact, she acted as though the American people were not expected to notice any of this.
The rest of the debate continued in much the same fashion. On the issue of global climate change, Palin agreed the planet’s getting warmer but didn’t admit it was the result of human activity. Instead, she went back to oil drilling as a path to energy independence; as if burning oil drilled in the US was any more of a solution to climate change than burning imported oil. Palin’s rationale? The US is too reliant on countries that produce more oil and pollute more “than America would ever stand for.” Presumably, US dependence on these countries forces us to tolerate their pollution? Sarah Palin must have assumed that the American people don’t know that the US is the largest per capita producer of carbon dioxide, thereby making us the largest greenhouse-gas emitter. When asked about interventionism and nuclear weapons, Palin did not hesitate to make up a General McClellan, who she said is on the ground in Afghanistan. It turns out there’s no General McClellan in Afghanistan (though there was a Civil War–era general who went by that name). And, after Biden rebutted her answer on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Palin responded by calling his plan for an exit strategy in Iraq a “white flag of surrender.” Again, no answer, just a childish taunt. I could go on and on but that would mean listening to the entire debate again, which even I am not prepared to do.
Ultimately, Sarah Palin’s performance in the debate was very revealing. She showed herself to be charming and personable. She proved she is capable of speaking—or at least reading a flashcard—for 90 seconds at a time. She showed that she’s also good at dodging questions and reciting talking points since, more often than not, she barely responded to the question that was being discussed. What she isn’t good at, however, is coherence. But Sarah Palin’s apalling performance revealed something else about her. She is confident—perhaps it’s a trait she honed during her days as a beauty pageant contestant. How else are we to explain her unflinching demeanor during the debate? Anybody who only looked at her body language—or watched the debate with the sound off—would have sworn Sarah Palin was getting the better of Joe Biden. At times, it almost seemed as though she herself thought her answers were brilliant. This raises three possibilities: Sarah Palin is a phenomenal actress; she is delusional and out of touch with reality; or she simply believed that her answers were good enough for the American people. I think it’s the third one.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that Sarah Palin didn’t try hard enough during last week’s debate. In fact, I’m certain she did her best up there on that stage. The trouble is that her best just wasn’t good enough. No doubt, confidence is a good quality for any politician to have but, as a certain former Texas governor showed the world, confidence is not enough. Leading the most powerful country in the world will take more than self-assuredness. It will take experience, knowledge, insight, and—dare I say it?—education. This is something we should all be mindful of, considering there is a 50% chance Sarah Palin may literally find herself a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Hopefully the American people realize this. Otherwise, we might end up with something even worse than more of the same.