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Not up to the job

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sarah Palin’s performance in the vice presidential debate was quite frankly dreadful. Governor Palin was certainly energetic and feisty but she lacks the necessary knowledge or grasp of the key issues to be the vice president of the most powerful nation in the world.

Following Palin’s terrible performance in a number of media interviews in the past weeks, most political analysts gave Governor Palin a pass mark for her debate performance. However, given ongoing concerns about Senator McCain’s health - yesterday’s New York Times featured a full page ad from 2,768 doctors calling for 72-year old John McCain to release his medical records to the public, as this is a man diagnosed with an invasive melanoma - it is time to get serious.

With her patent lack of a working knowledge of foreign affairs, Palin would be a liability not just to America, but to the world. The US is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has a network of aboutd 700 military bases in approximately 130 countries, and it also has a considerable nuclear arsenal. Given these facts, a basic knowledge of world affairs should be essential for any American vice president.


As the much tested judge of a huge number of undergraduate presentations on foreign affairs, I can tell when someone knows their stuff or when they are simply trying to wing it. It seems almost obscene to be comparing the performance of a potential US vice president with undergraduate students but the way Palin grasped at a few names and catch-phrases in the debate as if to suggest she understood the issues was insulting to voters and people everywhere effected by US government policy (and in fact she had speech cards in front of her that she regularly relied on during the debate).

Previous to this debate, in an interview with CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric, Governor Palin could not name one newspaper or magazine she has read to keep informed about international affairs. Although in the debate she was rarely lost for words as she has been when journalists asked her to directly answer a question, the words she spoke (particularly on foreign policy issues) were little more than a series of slogans and clichés. Palin talked about Israel like it was one of her children’s sporting teams rather than a complex and sometimes troublesome ally of the United States.

While I mention sport, it has become common in Australian sports commentary for former players and everyone else for that matter to make fun of players and coaches who use tired clichés (in what seems to me a light-hearted attempt to become a more articulate nation). Palin-speak proudly abounds in so many clichés it would embarrass even the most hackneyed coach. It is full of sayings like “darn right”, “walk the walk”, “at the end of the day”, and “maverick” (used six times in the debate).

I write all of this as someone who believes that George W. Bush’s presidential debate performances were often underrated. Particularly against Al Gore, Bush’s direct style was pretty effective. Despite his mangled syntax and malapropisms you knew what he was saying and what type of government he would try to run. Bush outlined positions and arguments in a manner far superior to anything we have seen from Governor Palin.

Palin is more reminiscent of Bush at his worst, when he relies on clichés and action movie talk on issues that require more thoughtfulness. Bushisms such as his claim after 9-11 that America’s new motto was “Let’s roll”, his talk about “riding herd” on the Middle East peace process, or his ultimatum issued to Saddam Hussein in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq that he would meet in a “car park” to sort things out were most unhelpful.

In fact, such language and thinking turned millions against the US because it played into long standing stereotypes about Americans as ignorant and arrogant when dealing with the rest of the world. Palin only serves to strengthen these stereotypes.


Palin’s similarities to Bush go beyond a verbally aggressive patriotism. Like Bush, Palin’s lack of knowledge on key policy issues could see her influenced by strident advisers. Combined with a naturally aggressive personality drawn to certitude this could be disastrous.

The crucial question is what the American people will make of Sarah Palin. Will her presence be fatal to the McCain quest for the presidency? Before the vice presidential debate, the polls and the commentariat were increasingly suggesting Palin had become a liability. After the debate many journalists with a history of strongly supporting the Republican Party lined up to argue Governor Palin had performed admirably and was definitely up to the job.

My guess is the more unscripted interviews Palin does the greater damage she will do to the McCain ticket. However, the Republicans are likely to keep Palin away from any further serious journalistic scrutiny for the remainder of the campaign.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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