Monday, July 6, 2009

Another possibility...

Ross Douthat has an article in today's NY Times that sets up a fairly bogus dichotomy, then plays with it to try to demonstrate that Sarah Palin's problems are ultimately just class envy. Or something.

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
Well.... not quite. The whole "anyone can become president" idea is, yes, about the idea that in theory at least, your chances of becoming president shouldn't depend on whether your name is Clinton or Kennedy, Bush or McCain. Or whether you went to an Ivy League school.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.

No. Sarah Palin's problems aren't that she didn't go to an Ivy League school. They're related to the fact that she was nominated for VP, much farther than many already go...and demonstrated repeatedly that she wasn't up to the job. She claimed to read "all" the newspapers but couldn't name a single one. She claimed that being able to see Russia from parts of Alaska constituted foreign-policy credentials. She claimed her life was an open book and her administration set a model for transparency, but refused to release any of her medical records and used private email accounts to conduct state business to avoid open-records laws. She claimed to support the Bush Doctrine, but couldn't say what it was. She compared herself to a pit bull but complained when she was called an attack dog. There are many, many graduates of many fine state universities who show more of a grasp of national issues.

Sarah Palin was put into the rigors of a campaign, was weighed, measured, and found wanting. There's no shame in not being up to the job of President; most of us aren't. I doubt Mr Douthat is; I'm certainly not. And given a few years to prepare, it's not inconceivable that she can make herself ready by 2012, or 2016, or 2020. But in 2008, she was not ready.

The "democratic ideal" is not and never has been that J. Random Citizen can ascend to the White House in the absence of any other qualification. It's that with ambition and talent, one can prove him- or herself fit to serve, even if there's no Harvard or Princeton or Yale time in the biography. Sarah Palin's loss says nothing about that.

Despite what Mr Douthat says, the message isn't "forget it." The message is "a diploma, or lack of one, will only take you so far."

Were some of the attacks on Palin unfair? Yes. Were they any worse than the unfair attacks Obama was dealing with, including Palin's "palling around with terrorists" line? I don't think so. Certainly no other VP candidate has gone so far to question the basic loyalty of the other party's nominee. Has there been any candidate for President or VP in the last 40 years who hasn't faced unfair attacks in the rigors of the campaign? Has there been any candidate who's refused to give interviews or hold a press conference, and not been criticized for it?

There's a not-so-subtle conflation going on here. Mr Douthat starts by presenting the democratic ideal as "that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard." Well, she won a statewide beauty contest (something many others have tried and failed to do), rose through politics to become Governor of her state (again, something many others spend their careers trying and failing to do) and became the VP nominee of a major party. There are talented, ambitious people (many with Ivy League degrees) who spend their lives preparing and striving for that goal, and who never make it.

True, she lost the election. In any election, there can be only one winner. But does the fact that she has already risen higher than 99+% of the professional political class, is nationally known with a strong base, with at least 20 years of her career still ahead of her, not indicate that she can, already has, become a success story?

Of course, success at that level brings life in the fishbowl, unfair attacks, media attention, and all the rest. If she's as smart as her supporters claim, then she should have known that going in to it. The experience of the campaign should have convinced her.

And Mr Douthat should know better than to blame her problems on social class, as if the election was hers to lose until that gosh-darn elitist liberal media started ganging up on her.

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