I like Sarah Palin. I would like to loooove Sarah Palin. After all, how many other unapologetically conservative, attractive, outspoken female politicians does America have?
For a long time, I was a firm Palin supporter. Last autumn, during her tenure as John McCain’s vice presidential nominee, it made sense to give Governor Palin the benefit of the doubt. It seemed entirely possible that many of her widely-reported missteps were the inevitable consequence of a relatively inexperienced candidate confronting a hostile media in the white hot glare of a national campaign. And some of the attacks against her – both from the left and the right – were so snobbish and so unfair that it was impossible not to root for her, and heartily.
Recently, however, my confidence in Governor Palin’s judgment has begun to ebb – most dramatically, this week. What in the world was she thinking to allow her daughter Bristol, an eighteen year old unmarried mother, to proffer a national interview?
No doubt Bristol’s motives were entirely pure. It seems that she intended to present herself as an advocate against teen pregnancy, warning, “It's so much easier if you're married, and if you have a house and career. ... It's not a situation you want to strive for." But Bristol also made headlines by characterizing abstinence for teens as “unrealistic.” That comment is likely to be the interview’s most lasting legacy – and it’s hardly one that will inspirit many of her mother’s most committed supporters.
Bristol Palin is only eighteen years old, and lacks any experience in handling the media. So it was entirely foreseeable that some gaffe or misstatement would overshadow any intended benefit she (or her mother) hoped would come from the interview. What’s more, the interview placed Governor Palin herself in the awkward position of praising her unmarried daughter as “a strong and bold young woman, and . . . an amazing mom.” That may be true, but how does it square with her earlier position that Bristol’s private life should be just that – private? And shouldn’t she have recognized that such accolades might inadvertently suggest to other young, unmarried women that they, too, could be “amazing moms”?
For Governor Palin, the interview was an unforced error. What’s most disturbing is that it hasn’t been the only one. Others include accepting and then declining the offer to address the Conservative Political Action Committee in person, and failing to pay taxes on her per diem expenses (although, in other circumstances, such an oversight might make her a prime candidate for an Obama Cabinet position). And let’s not forget the now-infamous footage of Governor Palin pardoning one Thanksgiving turkey as another was slaughtered behind her.
Certainly, much of this is trivial, and perhaps none of these things should matter. There’s little doubt that these missteps (and scores of others much worse) would be forgiven or ignored by the press were Governor Palin, say, a Democrat. But she isn’t. The cold, hard truth is that Sarah Palin is being – and will be – held to an incredibly high standard by political allies and adversaries alike. If she truly cherishes aspirations to national leadership, she has to realize that her every word, gesture and situation will be subjected to a level of scrutiny that will make what she’s already endured seem like a day at the beach. And then she needs to act accordingly.
Anyone who, like me, admires Governor Palin’s spunk, self-possession and unashamed conservatism should hope that she’s using this time to burnish her record as Alaska’s governor. What’s more, she needs to seize the opportunity to learn in detail both about national issues from the economy to foreign affairs – and also, when she doesn’t have all the answers, to dodge the questions with the elan of a Barack Obama. Finally, she must find a way to manage her own image, avoiding situations that create needless controversy and detract from an image of strength and effectiveness.
By now, it’s obvious that Sarah Palin has many of the qualities that would make her a compelling leader – most notably, an enviable degree of self-confidence. But self-confidence unsupported by judgment, knowledge and savvy is nothing but arrogance.
There’s no doubt that Governor Palin faces a tall order to vindicate her many supporters’ fondest hopes and dispel the doubts of the rest. But no one said that the path to the presidency would be easy, especially for a Republican woman. Now is the time for her to show us whether she’s up to the challenge.