It’s a good time for a bit of retrospective. It’s one year after the election, and two biographies have come out. The force of nature which descended upon the American consciousness in August 2008 has had some opportunity to find, or make, her niche in the political landscape.
Some parts are easy, and have been said loudly and repeatedly over the last 14 months: the evidence usually cited for her lack of intelligence has been tribal and social rather than intellectual; the obsession with her sexuality from some parts of the left has been creepy, and the commonness of milder creepiness from progressives suggests some adult sexual issues of their own. Demands for obstetrical records, rape and humiliation fantasies, urban legends about rape kits and her children’s sex education – even the new collection of critical essays about her is called Going Rouge, in parody of her own biography’s title – and this is from the supposedly respectable sources. This insanity has generally been defended with some version of “She brings this on herself because she’s the sort of woman we’ve been making fun of for years. Women who side with oppressors deserve to be oppressed.”
Yet being unfairly criticised is not in itself a skill one puts forward on a resume. Dealing with unfair criticism, sure. That’s worth noting. But her selling points have been two things she will do, plus two things she promises not to. She claims to be a good manager, savvy in all real-world aspects of running things. Her short stint as governor tended to bear this out, but as she has resigned, we will have little further information. There will now be no evidence whether she’s a great manager. She’s good: she delegates, she’s strong but not doctrinaire, she watches the budget, she eschews corruption and the culture of favors. That’s a real positive, but it’s a modest one.
Next, she claims that her instincts are common-sense conservative middle American, and we can count on her to tend that way. Grand utopian visions, even of the conservative or libertarian sort, are not her style. Her conservatism is not the sort that wants to create, or even return to, a particular American Dream. Hers is the sort that wants to yank the culture out of the hands of visionaries on the other side; it is more reactive than imposing. Those other utopians aren’t even going to understand the distinction, but the rest of us should keep it in mind. This claim of Palin’s also seems to be generally true, but not dramatically so. She may not be a libertarian dreamer herself, but she does hang with some people who are. Folks who claim to be strict constitutionalists but obscure contradictions. Folks who think a few simple interventions (gold standard, flat tax, Tenth Amendment) will right the ship pretty quickly. As the oversimplifiers of the left have had a few sympathetic ears in Washington for decades, it is perhaps nice that the oversimplifiers of the right get some too. If Sarah could move us 10% in that direction, that would be nice.
The things she promises not to do or be are related, and include one extremely powerful qualification: she resists the urge to leap in and fix things just because loud people say it’s a crisis. That may sound like a modest ability, but it is actually rare and enormous. People who go into government, especially Washington, like to tinker with things and try to prove how much better off everyone is with them in charge. That was the rap against McCain and Bush on domestic issues. Campaign Finance Reform. No Child Left Behind. Even general small-government types seem unable to resist this drug. In the current context, with an administration chock-a-block full of people who want to fix things by making everyone else smarten up and fly right, a Palin-style bailout (vetoing the congressional bailout down to about 40%), a Palin-style stimulus (ditto: 30%), and a Palin-style health care reform (try it on Medicare first) would be great. That’s still her strongest point – what she won’t be.
The second won’t-do is more intriguing. She promises to be a straight shooter who will stick to her principles, by jiminy. That is easy to do in the movies, hard in real life. Her record here is more mixed. It’s no good saying that it’s an impossible tightrope to walk, and all governing involves compromise. If it’s an impossible tightrope, don’t get on it. If what you really mean is that you will stay as close to principle as possible, and some principles will be absolute, then say that. It doesn’t wow the crowds as much, but that’s the price you pay. Sarah Palin did sorta kinda take Bridge to Nowhere money before she gave it back. Sarah Palin did sorta kinda stop mentioning some principles because they weren’t McCain’s. That’s okay, nothing wrong with that. Joe Lieberman certainly did, and everyone recognises him as generally following principle. But then you can’t have quite so much of the fresh-wind-blowing aura about you. Sarah Palin can legitimately brand herself as “Look, I’m a practical woman – I appointed a pro-choice judge because she was qualified,” or legitimately brand herself as “Take America Back.” She can even try to have as much of each as possible. But if any of us chooses that last road, we must do so with full knowledge that there’s not only political risk from the instability, but personal risk to one’s principles because of the constant dissonance.
As to her intelligence, that oft-debated item, my suspicions against her have grown, though I believe the book is still out. The health insurance reform debate provided intriguing evidence on this. The Obamites went moonbat crazy at her Death Panels accusation, citing it as proof she is either stupid or deceitful. As usual, their own comments were far more stupid (or deceitful). One aspect of the end-of-life discussion question was the Democratic proposal to reimburse such discussions with your physician. It was, in effect, encouraging you to have a major voice in your own death panel. That’s a good thing, but they didn’t want to mention that end-of-life decisions necessarily involve a DP of some collection of uh, stakeholders – yourself, your family, your doctor, your insurer, government regulations, hospital ethics committees. Absent those discussions, someone other than you will be on your death panel – and the health care reform bill proposed to change the composition of that panel, elbowing out the insurers, elbowing in the government. So there was a reasonable defense of Palin’s statement. Here’s the problem: Palin didn’t make that defense, other people made it for her. She had a chance to make exactly the sort of uncomfortably honest but reasonable argument her supporters expect from her, and she didn’t use it. She doesn’t get too many more of those chances before I am forced to conclude that she’s not up to it. I’m pretty good at disregarding the unfair criticism of her, but she has to put more on the menu.