Why the Palin Pick Was Brilliant

Michael Kinsley is of course right to say that conservatives who assailed Barack Obama's lack of experience now look silly and disingenuous defending Sarah Palin's. However, the corollary is also true: Those who defended or downplayed Obama's inexperience have no intellectually honest cause for complaint about the GOP's second-in-line. Already there are supposed gotchas circulating, for instance that Palin confessed in 2006 to not having given much thought to the merits of the troop surge in Iraq. Is this really more worrisome than the fact that Obama was not just wrong about that policy, but presented the Democratic case against it on the night of its televised announcement by President Bush?

Short though Palin's gubernatorial run has been, it still counts as an executive position and the traditional training seminar for the presidency. (The last senator sent to the White House by voters was John F. Kennedy.) Those who say Palin is too unknown and unvetted to be a mere "heartbeat" away from the most important job in the world have to consider that Joe Biden, who is known and vetted, was explicitly found unworthy for that job by a majority of Democrats only a few months ago. How has he suddenly become fit to be commander in chief? Ah, his foreign policy savvy and his longevity in Washington, D.C. That sounds familiar, as does Biden's touted interventionism.

He was also a "risky" choice for vice president because he's got a big mouth and penchant for sticking his foot in it. Contrast the working-class Catholic bruiser who threatens to shove his rosary beads down the throat of any evangelical who doubts his fideism to the mannered and prescripted style of Obama. Biden infamously borrowed the British Labor Party leader Neal Kinnock's eccentric and unmistakably Welsh biography in 1988 in an act of plagiarism that made him seem almost mentally unsound. (My friend Daniel Koffler, an ardent Obama supporter, puts it like this: "How does an American talk about the ‘1,000 generations' of his family, when maybe 15 generations ago his ancestral homeland of Scranton was inhabited by the Lenape?") Biden also boasted during the primary that Dixiecrats would support him because his home state of Delaware "was a slave state." How much more appalling that comment now seems. So why is it that only Palin's "gaffes" are being eagerly anticipated for the VP debate cycle?

From what little we know of her, her personality seems rather closely attuned to McCain's, and it surely weighed in his decision to select her. Both have challenged establishment elements in their own party. Both have demonstrated an ability to work well with members of the opposition. Both have acted, somewhat ostentatiously, as if the very job title "politician" was something they held in contempt. And both seem to thrive by being sneered at and written off prematurely as losers. Even Palin's ethics scandal has a slightly interesting twist that someone like McCain probably found endearing: When was the last time you heard of a politician being investigated for trying to fire her own relatives?

Palin's unyielding pro-life views will alienate many women, but at least as many will be impressed by the fact that she has nowhere in her private life acted the hypocrite on this issue (having the courage of one's convictions may not rank high among the moral virtues, but it does rank). Still more will be impressed by the mere possibility of a woman vice president, and those who discount the reflexive or visceral vote in American politics might ask themselves which candidate they'd most like to sit down and share a cosmo with. (I await the editorial suggesting that if McCain loses, it'll be because of sexism.) The proponents of identity politics are parochial by definition, but they'll be made to look stinting and stupid if they deny Palin's demographic appeal simply because she's a social conservative and a former beauty queen who likes to play with guns -- a resume that also makes her quite popular with a number of liberal men, by the way.

McCain has been rebuked for turning into a late-in-the-game stuntman who puts "politics before country," which is at least an implicit concession that the Palin pick counts as brilliant politics. And so it does. It's already robbed the Democrats of their post-convention afterglow, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that Barack Obama delivered what was probably the most serious political speech of his career, and did so on a great historic anniversary. Yet all anyone can talk about this week is the enigmatic governor from Alaska, who's only given one major speech in her life and who, up until a fortnight ago, was anonymous to most of the country. Palin's address before the RNC Wednesday night has earned her high marks from the very core conservatives who led the campaign to unhorse Harriet Miers from the Supreme Court nomination. It was also a day-late tutorial for Hillary Clinton on how to be aggressive and sarcastic at an opponent's expense without sounding desperate or -- what's the word? -- shrill. Feminism has re-entered the picture and the pantsuit is finally worn comfortably. Pretty shrewd of the geriatric underdog who sought her out and who can often appear defensive about how little attention the press is willing to pay him these days ...

Palin's political arc has actually recapitulated Obama's in a fraction of the time-a brisk few days as against an endless and exhausting year. The high-temperature headlines now being produced about her daughter's pregnancy might be seen as her Jeremiah Wright moment, although I doubt even an evasive speech about premarital sex will be necessary to overcome this crisis. The media forget that two of the most popular movies in recent memory were sympathetic toward unwanted or underage pregnancies. How do you spell cultural backlash? By focusing on how knocked up the Juno from Juneau is. Meanwhile, other dumpster-diving attempts to discredit Palin have proved laughably short-lived: The day the Daily Kos bloggers discover that she's the secret granny of a child with Down Syndrome is the day Larry Johnson unearths Michelle Obama's "whitey" video.

But this brings us to the real problems with Palin's candidacy, problems that are now being overshadowed by nonsense that truly does belong on the cover of Us Weekly. The New York Times reports that when she was mayor of Wasilla, she recommended the banning of certain books from the public library -- a recommendation that she thankfully never made good on but that nonetheless raises questions about her commitment to free speech. Perhaps after young Bristol enters her final trimester, someone will ask her mother what books she had in mind, and why she found them so unreadable.

Here's another troubling idea Palin never followed through on, this time as governor: establishing creationism as an "alternative" lesson plan for evolution in Alaska public schools. The Anchorage Daily News quotes her as saying no more than two years ago:

Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. And you know, I say this too as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject -- creationism and evolution. It's been a healthy foundation for me. But don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.

The Book of Genesis is not "information" on par with the theory of evolution, as the daughter of any science teacher should know and as a conservative, Bush-appointed judge in Dover, Pennsylvania had the good sense to point out in 2005. John McCain has said he subscribes to the notion that man descended from ape, and the look of boredom that always descends on his face whenever he's forced to sit through a mass or attend a religious ceremony is by now notorious enough to establish him as a Goldwater Republican on the matter of church and state separation. If his running mate is of a different mind about what belongs in biology class, then we deserve to know it before her heart beats any closer to the Oval Office.