December 12, 2008
The future of the Republican Party-14: The once and future queen?
It is time for me to leave that seemingly inexhaustible well of material that is Sarah Palin, though it is clear that we are not going to be free of her presence any time soon. There is no question that Sarah Palin was the phenomenon of the election. When was the last time that the losing vice-presidential candidate garnered so much continuing media attention after the election, totally eclipsing the winning counterpart?
The last question that I want to explore before moving on is whether she represents the future of the Republican party.
It is often the case that post-mortems of losing campaigns can be quite nasty, as people try to wash their hands of any blame for the debacle and seek to salvage their reputations so that they can hook up with future campaigns. What is startling about the McCain campaign infighting was its particularly vicious nature and that this process started even before the election was over. I think it is because there are some within the Republican party who recognize the long-term danger that Palin represents. The brutal internal sniping that erupted is a sign that they think her rise should be nipped in the bud.
On her side, there were reports that they think McCain campaign advisors made serious tactical errors, that she saw defeat looming and was distancing herself from him in order to maintain her own future political viability and laying the groundwork for her own presidential run in 2012, that she blames the McCain staff for her disastrous introduction to the nation and for the public relations fiasco over her $150,000 clothes shopping spree.
On his side, leaked reports say that McCain was annoyed with her and that his staff thinks that she is the main reason the campaign lost. People close to McCain have called her a 'diva' who had 'gone rogue' by pursuing her own agenda and going off-message, and some have even called her a "whack job". But the McCain camp's attempt to blame Palin for their loss is a bit disingenuous since he is the one who freely picked her.
Her inability to think or speak coherently seemed to come as a big surprise to the McCain campaign, and her unwillingness to quickly study up on the issues suggested an intellectual laziness.
"Her lack of fundamental understanding of some key issues was dramatic," said another McCain source with direct knowledge of the process to prepare Palin after she was picked. The source said it was probably the "hardest" to get her "up to speed than any candidate in history."
It is clear from her ignorance on so many issues that she has not shown any interest in national and international affairs all her life, and had to learn to deal with them only after being nominated for vice-president. But such habits and interests are formed early in one's life and without that desire to know such things I am not convinced that she can get up to speed within the next few years.
It was notable that even a few days before the election she still could not give a correct or even coherent answer to the question of what the vice president's role was, even though she had first flubbed that question when it was posed to her months earlier when her name was first floated as a possible running mate for McCain. The US constitution is notable for its conciseness. How hard would it be to read the few sentences that deal with the very post to which you are aspiring? She seems to think that a breezy confidence in your gut instincts is all you need.
It is now clear that even during her vice-presidential debate where her supporters think she acquitted herself well, she was reading much of her answers from notes and using pre-packaged responses whatever the question. If you go back and look at her interview with Katie Couric, you see that she frequently looks down at her lap, as if taking a quick peek at something.
She also lacks self-discipline. One example of this is her continuing to buy expensive clothes for her and her family after the scandal about them broke. The other is her tendency to repeat falsehoods (such as the story about the 'bridge to nowhere') after they have been exposed.
As we have seen in the few interviews she gave before the election, when asked a question, instead of pausing a moment to consider what point she wants to make, she has the unfortunate tendency of immediately launching into a blizzard of words and phrases without having a clear endpoint in mind, so her answers meander all over the place, a stream of consciousness monologue that is both oddly captivating and grating at the same time.
She squirts words out like a squid squirts ink when it is cornered, creating a cloud of incoherence. Take this recent example when she was trying to explain away the issue of whether she thought Africa was a country:
"My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."
Dick Cavett writes:
What will ambitious politicos learn from this? That frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits?
What on earth are our underpaid teachers, laboring in the vineyards of education, supposed to tell students about the [above] sentence, committed by the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High?
Some have responded that this pre-occupation with Palin's shaky grammar and syntax is an elitist obsession of those with expensive educations. But there is a huge difference between being plainspoken and expressing your ideas in the vernacular, and saying things that no one can make any sense of. Jim Hightower and the late Molly Ivins are examples of people who know how to wield Texas colloquialisms and regional idioms like scalpels, using breezy language to skillfully dissect any issue to quickly expose the underlying core. The problem with Palin is not that she says things badly but that we cannot tell, without careful parsing of her words, what idea she is even trying to convey.
Language can be an important clue as to the state of one's thinking. George Orwell said it best in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Sarah Palin is a textbook example of the point Orwell is making. An immersion course in grammar and syntax by itself is not going to help Palin become a clear thinker, although it would help her to not embarrass herself so much. Her use of language indicates that her problems go much deeper, to her very thought processes. The Republican party would be unwise to place its future in such thoughtless hands.
As the Republicans jockey to see who will lead the party in the future, look behind the actual names and faces that are bandied about and focus on which of the three groups (the old-style conservatives, the Christianists, and the neoconservatives) are supporting them. The key struggle to watch is the extent to which the Christianists are successful in convincing the more traditionally religious base of the Republican party that they represent their values, or whether other religious leaders who are dismayed by the current dominant coalition of end-timers and neoconservatives will successfully challenge the Christianists for the leadership position.
Which group emerges as the victor of that struggle will tell you which way the party is moving.
POST SCRIPT: Brain teaser
I received this interesting puzzle and thought I'd pass it on. I will post my solution in the comments.