Palin’s speech tells us nothing

I didn’t watch Palin’s speech last night. I probably would have, but I was on a plane at the time.

I’ve been reading the reactions in the blogosphere, and in general people seem to be impressed. Bloggers on the right are delighted

I am smitten and impressed and just altogether over-the-moon. Congrats to Scully [the speechwriter] and congrats foremost to Palin, for a tremendous performance under pressure. Masterly, by any standard.

— while bloggers on the left are alarmed:

A lot of Dems will go to bed nervous tonight. They should. Palin is still a political lightweight who is in no way qualified to be second in line for the presidency. But she is a charming lightweight. And if George W. Bush taught us anything, it is exactly how far that can take you in American politics.

Sarah Palin convention speech(photo credit: Todd Heisler, New York Times)
Not everyone was impressed. Nate Silver thinks Palin’s sneering attacks on Obama will play very badly with certain voters:

In exceedingly plain English, I think there’s a pretty big who the fuck does she think she is? factor. And not just among us Daily Kos reading, merlot-drinking liberals. I think Palin’s speech will be instinctively unappealing to other whole demographics of voters, including particularly working-class men (among whom there may be a misogyny factor) and professional post-menopausal women.

(Silver is a pollster — he knows what he’s talking about when he categorizes voters demographically.)

My response is this:  Palin’s speech tells us nothing. It strikes me as bizarre to read a series of excerpts from the speech — Palin said this and then she said that — knowing that she wrote not a word of it.

All those words tell us nothing about how Palin’s mind works, how she expresses herself, or what her own opinions are. It was a generic speech, originally written with a male running mate in mind, and tweaked to make it less “masculine” when McCain selected Palin.

There’s a very silly debate underway about whether Palin is more qualified than Barack Obama. It’s silly because it focuses attention in the wrong place.

The real issue isn’t experience, but knowledge. On that metric, it will emerge in due course that there’s no contest between Obama and Palin:  he’s far more knowledgeable than she is.

The evidence for that? Obama writes his own speeches. When he talks about environmental policy, or economic policy, or how quickly the USA should withdraw its troops from Iraq, or whether the USA should talk to Iran, he is sharing his opinion on topics he has personally thought about in some detail.

Palin, on the other hand, delivered a speech written by Matt Scully.

In due course, it will become evident to any objective viewer that Palin’s knowledge is extremely narrow. It’s clear that she knows something about oil and perhaps energy policy more generally. But what else does she know?

Of the literally hundreds of blog posts I’ve read about Palin by now, I think James Fallows has summed things up best:

Unless you have seen it first first-hand, as part of the press scrum or as a campaign staffer, it is almost impossible to imagine how grueling the process of running for national office is. Everybody gets exhausted. The candidates have to answer questions and offer views roughly 18 hours a day, and any misstatement on any topic can get them in trouble. Why do candidates so often stick to a stump speech that they repeat event after event and day after day? Because they’ve worked out the exact way to put their positions on endless thorny issues — Iraq, abortion, the Middle East, you name it — and they know that creative variation mainly opens new complications.

If someone is campaigning for the presidency or vice presidency, there’s an extra twist. That person has to have a line of argument to offer on any conceivable issue. Quick, without pausing in the next ninety seconds, tell me what you think about: the balance of relations between Taiwan and mainland China, and exactly what signals we’re sending to Hamas, and what we think about Russia’s role in the G-8 and potentially in NATO, and where North Korea stands on its nuclear pledges — plus Iran while we’re at it, plus the EU after the Irish vote, plus cap-and-trade as applied to India and China, and what’s the right future for South Ossetia; and let’s not even start on domestic issues.

Since McCain announced his pick, Palin’s handlers have kept her secreted away at a safe remove from the media. But eventually she has to emerge to answer questions. And then we’ll find out (not how much experience she has but) how little she knows.


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McSwain
    Sep 04, 2008 @ 20:32:07

    Obama may have a hand in writing his own speeches, but Jon Favreau is his speechwriter. Who knows what actually goes on behind closed doors.


  2. Stephen
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 07:38:43

    I’m sure Obama doesn’t write every word of every speech. (He’s too busy for that.) But the major speeches are drafted by him personally.

    Prior to the Democratic convention, Obama rented a hotel room in his home town. He slipped away for three evenings, where he could work on his speech without distractions.

    At some point, I’m sure he took a draft to his team who would provide suggestions. But the core message was his own, and I’m sure he was involved at every editorial stage.

    Not to mention that Obama participated in something like 27 debates during the Democratic primaries. He’s had to refine his policy positions and make them his own in a way that Palin hasn’t even begun to do. I don’t think anyone has any sense of what Palin thinks.


  3. Jack
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 12:34:02

    I prefer McCain to Obama, but Palin is the reason why I’ll probably vote for Barack.


  4. Stephen
    Sep 05, 2008 @ 17:43:12

    I’m astonished that you’d seriously consider voting for Obama! But I’m glad to know that (like David Frum, Ben Stein, Charles Krauthammer and others) you can see that this pick is indefensible.


  5. 49erDweet
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 17:08:03

    I agree there is a legitimate concern with the experience level of Governor Palin. I hold, though, there is a strange and illogical disconnect with reality when one glosses over the same weakness in Senator Obama’s record. But that just might be me. I am, after all, merely a right-wing nutjob.



  6. Stephen
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 18:36:02

    49er, I would never describe you as a nutjob. But the Republican line equating Obama with Palin is ridiculous.

    Experience is a means to an end. The end is knowlege.

    Knowlege ultimately counts more than experience: lots of people who have plenty of experience remain know-nothings at the end of the day.

    Obama has demonstrated his knowledge through 19 months of campaigning, including 27 debates during the Democratic primary. He has also demonstrated his knowledge in the speeches that he himself has written.

    What would Sarah Palin do if Osama bin Laden was in the USA’s sites, but on the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan / Pakistan border? Does Palin think the USA should talk to North Korea and Iran, or does she think those nations can be bullied into submission as John McCain apparently believes? Does Palin support bringing US troops home from Iraq on a timetable, as Obama, President Bush and President Maliki all do (with McCain as odd man out)?

    How would Palin tackle climate change? What is her plan to reform the healthcare system? Does Palin support a windfall profits tax on oil companies? (Maybe she does, since it’s exactly the policy she utilized in Alaska; but since it’s contrary to McCain’s position, I expect she’ll have a different opinion now. But who knows, since she won’t answer the media’s questions?)

    Obama has grappled with each of those issues (and many others) and his policy prescriptions are a matter of public record. He has knowledge and proven judgment (e.g. when he predicted with great accuracy how the Iraq war would blow up in America’s face). He thinks strategically (clearly demonstrated in the Democratic primaries) and maintains his emotional equilibrium under pressure (unlike a certain other candidate posing as a maverick).

    Meantime, Palin has uttered not a single word on any of the topics I raised above. And yet she wants Americans to put her “a heartbeat away” from the Presidency as of Jan. 20. And the McCain team is hiding her from the media. What does that tell you? It’s as clear a signal as could be that Palin is not ready to assume the responsibilities of Commander in Chief on “day one”.

    If she’s not ready to face the media, how can she be ready to be Commander in Chief?

    So don’t tell me that Obama shares Palin’s weakness, but I am glossing them over! That’s just Republican fact-twisting.


  7. nebcanuck
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 18:36:26

    I still hold that the selection of Palin may or may not be a wise move on the part of McCain. The media will get ahold of her, and then we’ll see what she has in her tank.

    But I think it’s a bit ridiculous for you to make the statement that she has no knowledge, and that she’s incapable of being her own thinker at the level that Barack is, on such little evidence.

    49er may be wrong about you overlooking the same flaws in Obama — although I would suggest you’re making a quick association between knowledge and experience since there’s little else to base her “knowledge level” on — but I do think it rather amusing that you’re super fond of the idea of an aggressive media now that it’s the Republicans destined to lose points.

    When Obama was being hounded, we had a nice debate over whether or not it was right to expect a president to be able to make spur-of-the-moment declarations of opinion. It seems to me that the conclusion of those in favour of Obama seemed to be in line with the idea that a president taking time to think would be a good thing… that the media was, in fact, in the wrong for putting spins on his little misquotes because he was being attacked so quickly.

    Now you want Palin to be put through the same treatment? That most certainly seems inconsistent.

    I’d far prefer a candidate who takes their time to think out questions and comes up with a thorough answer, and explains the reasoning, rather than pushing an agenda 100% of the time with a flick of a switch or a push of a button. Obama seems more thoughtful than McCain. To suggest that the true test of a potential commander in chief is how well they answer the quick question is ridiculous, and just as volatile a way of approaching politics as playing the popularity card a la Bush.


  8. Stephen
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 20:52:08

    I agree with this statement:

    I’d far prefer a candidate who takes their time to think out questions and comes up with a thorough answer, and explains the reasoning, rather than pushing an agenda 100% of the time with a flick of a switch or a push of a button.

    But your comment evidently assumes that Palin hasn’t given any thought to these issues before now. No thought to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; no thought about how to respond to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon; no thought re what to do about the crisis in the U.S. economy; etc., etc.

    And yet, if the Republicans win this election, Palin will be a heartbeat away from the presidency as of Jan. 20. That’s only four months from now.

    The point is, McCain should have picked someone who has already thought deeply about the issues. But there is no public statement from Palin on any of these topics to indicate that she has given it a moment’s thought.

    Your comment implies that Palin will start to think about these topics now that she’s the Republican nominee for Vice President. But you can’t get up to speed on these things by cramming information for a couple of months, like it’s just an exam. The stakes are too high for that.


  9. Stephen
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 21:06:35

    I should also respond to this part of your comment:

    I do think it rather amusing that you’re super fond of the idea of an aggressive media now that it’s the Republicans destined to lose points.

    I’m not fond of an aggressive media if it means they’re proclaiming that Obama isn’t fit to be President because he doesn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel. Or when they’re replaying youtube footage of Jeremiah Wright for days on end, musing whether Obama shares Wright’s liberation theology when there’s no evidence that he does.

    But the media plays an extremely important role in a democracy: informing voters about the issues and the candidates’ positions on the issues.

    Turning to Palin: I don’t care that her unmarried, teenaged daughter is pregnant. But yes, I want the media to aggressively pursue Palin’s policy positions.

    In a follow-up post, I embed a youtube of Obama being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly (of the FOX network) makes no secret of his near contempt for some of Obama’s answers. Nonetheless, I approve of O’Reilly’s aggressive questioning, because he’s trying to pin Obama down on crucial policy matters. On the whole, it’s a good interview: voters will gain valuable information from watching it.

    Politics aint beanbag. If Palin wants to play in the big leagues, she’s got to come out and stand in the batter’s box just like Obama, McCain, and Biden did this weekend.


  10. Jack
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 22:37:33


    I am an independent. I look at the issues and look at the candidates. I won’t sit out an election.

    I may not like the candidates, but I will vote for whomever I think will do the best job.


  11. nebcanuck
    Sep 08, 2008 @ 14:24:59


    But you see, that’s just it. Your second part of your argument is clearly the only one that’s valid: She hasn’t had to be drilled by the media and, through that, express her opinions about key issues.

    You can’t say she hasn’t thought about the Iraq war. Surely everyone has. She simply hasn’t expressed her thoughts on the war to the media. The same can be said for the energy crisis, taxes, and any other major issues. Is she the most informed person out there? Certainly not. But she has surely thought of them even as someone interested in politics, and it’s not really knowledge that’s necessary in a candidate, but wisdom. She’ll have people informing her about the semantics of the issues that she didn’t know previously. But her thoughts on the issues will be tested to see how well she can use that influx of knowledge to make decisions that would benefit the States.

    You’re also deliberately muddling my argument in order to prove yours, which aren’t entirely related. I wasn’t saying she shouldn’t have thought about it. She should have. But the media doesn’t inform the way it should when drilling is the process by which they get information from candidates. You can go ahead and suggest that O’Reilly’s attempt to make Obama look silly is informative, but it’s not by intention, that much is for sure. News networks like Fox aren’t looking to inform, they’re looking to entertain, and if Obama had bumbled about and failed to answer, they would have been just as happy. Obama’s the one who made that session informative.

    However, someone like Palin has never been subjected to this kind of attention, and almost certainly doesn’t have the sheer talent Obama has as a wordsmith. To suddenly use the media’s drilling techniques as a sincere way of getting information from a candidate — especially now that it’s not your candidate being drilled — is ridiculous. The discussion we had way back then was about whether the tactics were useful, and we agree that no, they really demonstrated how well a person could wing it, not how well they could make informed decision.The media will throw spins on questions that Palin won’t have considered, and then expect immediate answers. Does that mean she hasn’t thought it through? No. It means that the medium is fallible — particularly when the goal is entertainment, not information.

    Do I think that they should be shielding her from the media completely? No. She’s one of the 4 people potentially in a position of power some time in the next 4 years. That’s a tough position to be in. But neither do I think media drilling is an ideal test of her as a candidate. Oh, it will be, because that’s all we’ve got in general. But I hold that she may be able to make very wise decisions even if she can’t wing it with O’Reilly.


  12. Stephen
    Sep 08, 2008 @ 14:51:13

    Probing questions force candidates to move beyond their party’s talking points.

    Right now Palin is making stump speeches — words written by someone else which she’s reading from a teleprompter. Meanwhile, Republican strategists are using every available moment to drill her on the issues: filling her head full of focus-group tested talking points that Palin can regurgitate when she’s asked a question.

    Yes, the media tries to trip up the candidate by spinning scenarios the candidate hasn’t thought of. It’s a little like defending a Ph.D. thesis. A committee grills you on your research to see whether you really know the topic; whether you can go defend your thesis in the face of a challenge that you hadn’t considered as you were writing the paper.

    Real world events don’t follow a script. Life will throw a series of curveballs at whoever is elected President. There are no set answers to unexpected developments. And at this point we simply don’t know whether Palin can go beyond set answers.

    I’ll make one concession to you: I’m articulating an argument from silence. I’m assuming that Palin hasn’t thought about these topics because she hasn’t expressed a public opinion on them. Also because the McCain team is shielding her from the media — it appears that they’ve judged her not ready for prime time.

    But an argument from silence is always suspect. We simply don’t know how knowledgeable and capable Palin is at this point. And we won’t know until she faces some hard questions — akin to the sceptical questions O’Reilly threw at Obama.

    You can go ahead and suggest that O’Reilly’s attempt to make Obama look silly is informative, but it’s not by intention, that much is for sure.

    Yes, O’Reilly was attempting to trip Obama up. Will Vladimir Putin toss softballs at the next President?

    The interview is informative because a sceptic pressed Obama on what he really knows. And Obama genuinely knows something, so he was able to rise to the challenge. We don’t know whether Palin can do the same, and it’s an important test she needs to pass.


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