A Bridge Too Far

September 11, 2008 Topic: Great Powers Region: Americas Tags: Superpower

A Bridge Too Far

Sarah Palin has wowed many with her convictions and charisma. But can she deliver effective policy?


An ideologue can deliver one hell of a stirring speech, free of wonkish policy proposals, measured caveats, or hint of vacillation. Combine that lack of inhibition with a unique personal history and the audience is elated.

Those political observers that have been weakly insisting that women should not support Governor Sarah Palin simply because they share the same reproductive organs are overlooking how compelling her biography is, particularly when paired with that reproductive apparatus in question. Indeed, women do yearn to see another of their kind catapulted to a position of power, especially one as charismatic as Palin. That yearning does not trump all other considerations, but that visceral factor is in play this election and it will be difficult to track or predict. And Palin's background powerfully reinforces Senator John McCain's campaign narrative.


It remains to be seen whether some of the particulars of Palin's personal and political past that were not featured at the convention could dispel women's and independents' newfound enthusiasm for her. The Obama camp will face difficulty in attacking an evangelical female candidate with a special-needs son and another son bound for Iraq (although Biden also has a son to soon deploy). But when it comes to her sparingly professed policy positions and the accuracy of some of her statements, the Obama campaign has a number of valid arguments to make.

When compared to some other politicians, Palin's misrepresentations and inconsistencies may not be so damning. But since she is being promoted-and indeed is promoting herself-on her values and fortitude of character, she must remain virtually beyond reproach. But the facts do not suggest that the GOP has found itself an unimpeachable candidate for the vice presidency. More importantly, though, what little she has said on foreign policy should set off alarms. She appears to be McCain's ideological brethren-more hardline, that is, than the current Bush administration and dangerously idealistic.


Palin vs. Clinton

Perhaps the best way appreciate Palin's personal history is to juxtapose it to that of the other prominent woman this campaign season-Hillary Clinton. While many political observers are upholding Clinton as the female candidate that women can legitimately support, consider that the senator from New York was able to leapfrog to her current position by virtue of her association with her spouse. Palin has made her achievements on her own. If that statement seems unfair, consider that the Clinton administration never assigned Hillary a single task of overriding importance after her health care initiative failed so publicly. Perhaps it was that lack of demonstrable experience under the Clinton administration that prompted Hillary to concoct her tale of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton publicly pledged to give his wife a significant role and promoted a two-for-one presidency. Hillary Clinton could have credibly argued that she earned a mandate to draft policy, given her husband's clearly stated intention to give her such responsibilities. But following the failure of her health-care proposal, the administration put her in a corner. While campaigning for her party's nomination, Hillary Clinton could not point to an important initiative as first lady bearing her signature. But as a junior senator herself, Hillary was promoting that first-lady experience to differentiate her from Obama.

Perhaps no image can best illustrate that distinction between Palin and Clinton than that of Mr. Palin cradling their newborn son during Palin's convention speech. While Hillary Clinton always waited for her husband to fulfill his own political ambitions before she made any attempt to attempt to do so herself, in the Palin household it is the husband who is now playing a supportive role. That image alone, of Mr. Palin holding Trig, could have bolstered the McCain-Palin poll numbers.

For all of her backwater experience, Palin has authored her own achievements. After she served as Wasilla's mayor, she became chairman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, only to resign in 2004 over ethical grounds. She claims to have challenged Alaska's Republican machinery to win the 2006 Alaska governor's election. As governor, she was able to get a natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope under way. Her decision to take the bidding process outside the state was commendable and TransCanada Corp., based in Calgary, has been awarded the contract. But interestingly, that decision to tap a Canadian firm contrasts sharply with her convention speech in which she said, to roaring applause: "We need American energy brought to you by American ingenuity and produced by American workers." All the same, in some respects Palin's progression, from PTA to small town mayor to governor of a sparsely populated state, seems more natural than Hillary Clinton's.

Further, while Clinton tends to prevaricate and hedge on a number of issues, to the point where it is difficult to discern where she stands, Palin appears to hold convictions that she at least appears to have upheld in her own life, as evidenced by her decision to give birth to her youngest son who has Downs Syndrome. While it is true that she has offered only a faint outline of her policy positions-and those alone are enough to cause considerable concern-she is clear and fiery in her presentation. Indeed, Hillary (and a lot of other politicians) would do well to borrow a mere portion of Palin's charisma.


The Whole Palin

If Palin is to be promoted through her biography and affiliation rather than her policy proposals, she confronts an undue burden of being unimpeachable. And Palin is not that. She has not been wholly forthright in her depiction of herself and some of her personal decisions seem to call into question some of her professed convictions.

Since Palin's personal history has become such a prominent campaign issue, it is important to look beyond the portrait the convention presented. Palin has brandished her "hockey mom" credentials and has said that she opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest. Indeed, the Palin's decision to give birth to Trig is apparently the reason a growing number of Catholics are throwing their support behind Palin, and McCain by association.

Yet Palin's actions while pregnant with Trig might cause that same Catholic electorate to rethink its emerging support. The last two paragraphs of a profile the Wall Street Journal published on Palin on September 2 described how Palin, although she was having contractions and was eight months pregnant, decided to give a keynote speech to an energy summit of governors in Dallas. That profile did not mention that Palin's water broke during the conference. She then boarded a flight back to Alaska, which put the baby at a serious risk for infection.

"I was not going to miss that speech," she told the newspaper. She added, "Maybe they shouldn't have let me fly, but I wasn't showing much so they didn't know." Surely, the free-thinking conservative-opposed, according to her landmark speech, to bureaucrats telling Americans how they should live-could have made up her own mind on a decision as fundamental as when to check in to a hospital to deliver her own baby. Her actions call into question the governor's judgment and character.

And then there is the much-publicized pregnancy of her seventeen-year-old, unmarried daughter. At first glance, there is much for evangelicals to applaud even in this out-of-wedlock coupling, primarily the young woman's decision to have her baby. And pregnancy at such a young age may not set off cultural alarms in evangelical, heartland communities that contrast with the career-centric east.

But for all her brandishing of "hockey mom" credentials, Palin's family appears to be showing signs of disarray. Bristol and her boyfriend Levi Johnston may not be as apple-pie as they have been described. As reported, Johnston described himself as a "f****** redneck" in My Space, before the entry was taken down, and said he was not ready to become a father. Palin's husband, meanwhile, has reportedly been arrested twice for drunk driving, although that was twenty-two years ago.

But while these are valid points for the Obama camp to make-given that Palin herself has inserted her mothering capabilities into the campaign-it is next to impossible for it to address them without being accused of harboring a double standard and creating sympathy for Palin. And so it is up to the media to present a fuller picture of Palin and her family. This may understandably strike some editors and reporters as yellowish journalism, but in this campaign, it has become newsworthy. The electorate is perhaps more interested in who the candidate is than what policy he or she has supported.


A Bridge Too Far

The Obama camp is on firmer footing in holding Palin to account on her inconsistencies and the inaccuracies of her statements. Despite depicting herself as a reformer and fiscal conservative, as mayor Palin left Wasilla-which had a population of about seven thousand-$22 million in the hole, although the town had no debt when she assumed office. She increased government spending in Wasilla by more than one-third during a period of low inflation. Palin spearheaded the construction of a $15 million multi-use sports complex at the taxpayers' expense. The hockey rink at the complex is complete with heated seats. She also oversaw several office redecorations and city hall remodelings. Palin also fired a number of career professionals in Wasilla, including the police chief.