The Mad Matron

While Joe Biden was a smooth talking elder statesman, Sarah Palin laid down the law—and her house rules are a little frightening.

Darn right, the real Sarah Palin emerged last night: freedom fighter. With liberty, as she put it, only a generation away from extinction, her mission isn't so much to go abroad and crusade for democracy but to protect it at home by expanding the powers of the vice presidency to ensure that the Senate cooperates with John McCain. This wasn't a simpering hockey mom cheering on her big guy, but "mommy dearest" laying down the law to her charges around the nation. Her performance was not the disaster that some conservatives had been fearing. Instead, despite David Brooks' valiant efforts in Friday's New York Times to depict her as rising to the occasion, she merely rose to the level of mediocrity.

How expanding the imperial presidency even further, in answer to Gwen Ifill's question about the nature of the vice presidency, would comport with Palin's small government credo was left unsaid. What Palin did say was that, "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are." Jeepers creepers! Palin apparently wants to tell McCain what his strengths are, though confidence in that department doesn't seem to be one of his more notable deficiencies. Anyway, wasn't eight years of Dick Cheney hiding in subterranean bunkers, plotting war against Iraq and who knows else, enough? Palin may be in better shape, have a full head of hair, and play to the crowd, but she seems to be channeling the vice's spirit.

So much so that the Democrats, we learned, are raising the "white flag of surrender" when it comes to Iraq. What they would be surrendering isn't Iraq, however, but a protracted war that has sapped America's ability to confront the real terrorists in Afghanistan and Waziristan, who have complacently watched as the Bush administration mired the country in guerrilla warfare, prompting Defense Secretary Robert Gates to decry the other day, in so many words, the specious Rumsfeld doctrine of shock and awe, which neither shocked nor awed the Iraqis, but rather caused them to rise up against the United States with the aim of forcing it to retreat, which is essentially what will occur whether McCain or Obama becomes president, no matter what Palin babbled on about last night.

Even as she made the obligatory bows to a tough foreign policy, Palin was announcing that Washington had to butt out of the affairs of Americans. But her pious talk about the free market was at odds with her complaints about the sagging economy. In Palin's words, "Darn right it was the predator lenders, who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to buy a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house. There was deception there, and there was greed and there is corruption on Wall Street. And we need to stop that." We do? Was it as simple as "predator lenders" or was there something more at work? Don't Americans have to take any consequences for their own financial decisions? Nor do Palin's vague words about "greed" make much sense. Without the acquisitive instinct, capitalism wouldn't exist. What's needed is proper regulation to ensure that companies aren't skirting the law or engaging in unethical behavior. But regulation, as Palin's repeated condemnations of Washington suggested, is anathema to her.

Meanwhile, Biden played the sage elder statesman, but it wasn't clear that he was playing. Rather, he projected confidence and sound judgment, qualities that have been in absence for the past eight years. He said nothing particularly memorable, but it wasn't necessary. Biden's most telling moments came when he briefly welled up in recalling his wife's death-for all her supposed empathy, Palin maintained a stony face-and decried Cheney's actions as "dangerous." He was right.

Interestingly, the American Conservative magazine is trying to co-opt Palin from the neocons and Patrick J. Buchanan fell over himself last night to lavish praise on Palin's performance. Palin, though, does not represent the future of the GOP. On the contrary, she exemplifies the exhaustion of the Republican brand, which will need to be dramatically overhauled after the election. If last night's debate is any measure, it will probably be years before the GOP can recover from this debacle.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.