I’m, like, man, I really don’t know if I’m ready for a vice president who goes: “My son’s, like: ‘Mom, I’m in the army now,’ and I’m, like: ‘I’m so proud.’” And who’s, like, “And [my son] goes, ‘O.K., well I’ll be praying.’ I’m like—total role reversal here, that’s what I’ve been telling him for 19 years.’” Or who goes, “This is a time when, man, politics have got to be put aside.” (As Alaska governor Sarah Palin told Sean Hannity, William Kristol, and Katie Couric.)
I know, it’s elitist to expect a candidate for president or vice president to speak like an adult. Sure, there are parents out there battling the “like” epidemic who might not appreciate having someone in the White House validating their 15-year-olds’ speech habits. But, hey: “Total role reversal here.” (Palin, of course, can sound adolescent even when she uses the right verbs, as when she disingenuously denied her snarky put-down of Joe Biden’s age while lauding herself as “you know, . . . the new energy, the new face, the new ideas.”) It’s even more elitist to expect a vice president to put together sentences that cohere into a minimally logical progression of thought. There was a time, however, when conservatives upheld adult standards—such as clarity of speech and thought—without apology, even in the face of the relentless downward pull of adolescent culture. But now, when a vice-presidential candidate talks like a teenager, mugs like an American Idol contestant, and traffics in syntactical dead-ends and non sequiturs, we are supposed to find her charming and authentic.
Palin’s defenders only indirectly acknowledge her awkward linguistic skills when they denounce “gotcha journalism.” They dismiss a by-now classic Palin paragraph as the product of Katie Couric’s unfair questioning. Couric had asked Palin whether, instead of buying up bad debt on Wall Street, government should help Americans pay their mortgages. To a Palinite, here was a true “gotcha” moment. The candidate responded:
That’s why I say I, like every American I’m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it’s got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.
Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that this free-association spree is simply the effect of a predatory liberal reporter and does not reflect Palin’s financial ignorance or muddled thinking. But many of Palin’s utterances in her softball debate with Senator Joe Biden were also disjointed and strange. That many on the right (and even some in the media) greeted her debate performance as a triumph had more to do with her bravura self-confidence—telegraphed by her cringe-making winks and grins—than with the quality of her arguments. Following Biden’s claim that Bush’s policies have favored the wealthy, Palin seized the occasion to ladle out some canned and non-responsive Reaganesque folksiness:
Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I’m glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. . . . Education credit in American has been in some sense in some of our states just accepted to be a little bit lax and we have got to increase the standards. . . . We need to make sure that education in either one of our agendas, I think, absolute top of the line.
To be sure, most of us would take vows of silence if forced to read transcriptions of our speech. And Biden also let forth impenetrable utterances during the debate. But Palin’s elisions and U-turns take ordinary inarticulateness to a new level. Asked who was at fault in the subprime meltdown, for example, Palin answered:
One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let’s commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say “Never Again.” Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those managing our money and loaning us these dollars.
At another point, she noted that “96 percent of [Obama’s] votes have been solely along party line, not having that proof for the American people to know that his commitment, too, is, you know, put the partisanship, put the special interests aside, and get down to getting business done for the people of America.”
Palin favors relative clauses that hang precariously at the end of sentences: “I am [interested in defending McCain’s health care plan] because he’s got a good health care plan that is detailed.” Or: “I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.” Her speech differs somewhat from the verbal knots into which George W. Bush so often tied himself. She is less given to malapropisms; apart from her teen mannerisms, her linguistic oddness is more subtle, and seems more often driven by a failure to grasp subject matter.
Nevertheless, Palin’s verbal hodgepodge may say nothing about her qualifications for the vice presidency. Judgment and political acumen could well rest on different mental capacities than the ability to order thoughts into smooth sentences. But the inability to answer a straightforward question about economic policy without becoming tangled in words suggests either ignorance about the subject matter or a difficulty connecting between ideas. Neither explanation is reassuring.
The Palin nomination has unleashed among Republican pundits and voters a great roar of pent-up rage against liberal elites, much of it warranted. But the conservative embrace of Palin comes at considerable cost to conservative principles. The populist identity politics that Republicans are now playing with such gusto may come back to haunt them in the future. Palin gave a typically incoherent summation of that populist conceit during the vice-presidential debate:
But it wasn’t just that experience tapped into, it was my connection to the heartland of America. Being a mom, one very concerned about a son in the war, about a special needs child, about kids heading off to college, how are we going to pay those tuition bills? About times and Todd and our marriage in our past where we didn’t have health insurance and we know what other Americans are going through as they sit around the kitchen table and try to figure out how are they going to pay out-of-pocket for health care? We’ve been there also so that connection was important.
Having trouble paying for health insurance has no bearing on whether one understands how to lower its costs, however. Someone who has never had to worry about his credit card bill may nevertheless possess unmatched ability to manage and explain economic policy. Yet such a potential candidate will be forced into the usual embarrassing protestations of his own economic insecurity, if he is allowed onto the final political stage at all. Enough. Conservatives should stand for excellence and merit, period. Middle-class status is neither a qualification nor a disqualification; the same goes for economic success.
Conservatives will also have a hard time backpedaling from the hypocrisy they displayed regarding Palin’s family situation. Pundits and talk radio hosts rushed to explain why the pregnancy of Governor Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was a wonderful thing. Answer: because the baby would not be aborted. But every born baby of a teen parent has not been aborted, by definition. While from a pro-life perspective, the decision to carry any child to term is laudable, the celebration of Bristol's decision became difficult to distinguish from a celebration of teen motherhood itself. In the past, conservatives have not flinched from pointing out the social and economic costs of teen pregnancy; taking up that theme again, after the happy family-values face put on Bristol’s imminent motherhood, is going to be awkward, to say the least.
Conservatives once insisted that women can’t always have it all: raising a child requires certain unavoidable trade-offs between family and career. A mother, a father, and day care are not fungible, particularly for very young children. Yet now comes Sarah Palin, with a disabled baby who will be barely a year old when the next president and vice president take their oaths of office, and conservative pundits suggest that only the fear of strong women could lead someone to question whether a mother with such a young, needy child can serve both her oath of office and her family as each deserve.
Liberal hypocrisy on Palin’s family dilemmas has matched the conservative turnaround with perfect symmetry, of course. And perhaps both sides will blithely and unapologetically switch places yet again as soon as circumstances allow. Still, the conservative position on the family happens to be the right one. So, too, was the erstwhile conservative defense of articulateness, knowledge, and uncommon achievement. It’s a shame to have sacrificed these ideas, even temporarily, in the quest for political advantage.