In Defense of Sarah Palin

Don’t write her off yet—despite some stumbles, Sarah Palin has a plain spoken charm that could confound the verbose Joe Biden and boost the Republican ticket after this Thursday’s debate.

Fareed Zakaria is calling for Sarah Palin to resign. "Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be vice-president," he wrote in Monday's Washington Post. A host of conservative pundits, including National Review's Richard Lowry, are drubbing her performance with Katie Couric. What can they be thinking?

After the listless Friday night debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, it's become undeniable that Palin is a lifeline for the presidential race itself. The Palin phenomenon-as opposed to Palin herself-isn't so much refreshing as mesmerizing. Over the weekend as many people likely watched Tina Fey continue her Saturday Night Live impersonation of Palin as watched the debate itself. Given the quality of Palin's answers to Katie Couric, Fey might even be better able to pull off the act than Palin. At least she's aware that the whole thing is a joke.

Absent Palin, however, the McCain campaign would be probably be completely in the doldrums. For Republicans who are standing by their woman, Palin, who knows moose from mousse, offers the chance to condemn the snobby eastern liberal elite. For the snobby eastern liberal elite, Palin is further proof of their superiority to the rubes out there in the hinterlands.

Certainly McCain and Obama didn't provide much in the way of fireworks on Friday. McCain was no "Top Gun," blazing away at his opponent. Instead, he returned to the soothing voice he employed during his Convention speech, trying to reassure Americans that he's a voice for reason and calm. The only time he seemed to lose it was when he stumbled over "I'm a dinner jackets" name no less than three times. Meeting with Iran's president, McCain intimated, was tantamount to legitimizing Holocaust denial and, by the way, an Iran with nuclear weapons would pose an "existential threat" to Israel. Obama countered by suggesting that Ahmadinejad was neither top gun nor top dog in Iran. McCain offered an unexistential smirk.

Obama once more was not as fluid as he is when delivering a speech. In fact, McCain spoke more smoothly than Obama. Obama's tough lines about McCain's failure to anticipate the quagmire of Iraq were effective, but McCain countered with the success of the surge. Tit-for-tat.

And so it went for most of the evening. In that sense, though, Obama probably won. McCain was looking for victory, which he didn't get. Obama was looking not to lose, and he didn't.

But all bets are off Thursday night when Joe Biden and Palin face off. Will they shake hands or embrace before the debate? What color dress will Palin wear? Will she feature a new set of eyeglasses? Will her handlers have stuffed her so full of information that she'll be struggling to find her footing in a sea of foreign-policy turbulence? Now that Hugo Chavez is talking about starting his own nuclear program, will Palin want to bomb Venezuela as well as Iran?

Palin, not Biden, will surely be the locus of attention. He'll be grappling, if that's the right word, with a different kind of adversary than he's ever encountered. Palin appears to have mastered much of the neocon lexicon-don't second-guess Israel, smack around Russia, and so forth-but it's the niggling details, like why she's barely traveled abroad or how clear the view to Siberia really is from her living room window that seem to cause her problems. Meanwhile, Biden will wax nostalgic about his hardscrabble childhood, though if his recent impromptu remarks about no coal, dirty or clean, are any guide, he's moved a long way from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where sooty buildings are regarded as something of a badge of pride and manhood.

But it's Palin who exudes the real testosterone these days. Her husband defers to her. Her brood follows her around loyally. The GOP base reveres her. Palin, you might say, is the moose that roared.

If she can get her groove back and not be cowed into submission by Biden's torrent of words, Palin has the opportunity to come out as plain folks, prepared to deal with the everyday problems Americans are facing as their pensions and jobs disappear. Palin can bail out McCain Thursday night, and with everyone piling on, she has nowhere to go but up. Before long, the Governor may not be bowing out but taking a bow. Mother knows best, after all.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.