David Frum on the case against Palin
Sat August 30, 2008 11:03 am

Like the defense of Palin that I posted previously, this commentary by Frum, the author of Dead Right and a former speechwriter for Bush 43, appeared in “the corner” blog in National Review Online:

The longer I think about it, the less well this selection sits with me. And I increasingly doubt that it will prove good politics. The Palin choice looks cynical. The wires are showing.

John McCain wanted a woman: good.

He wanted to keep conservatives and pro-lifers happy: naturally.

He wanted someone who looked young and dynamic: smart.

And he discovered that he could not reconcile all these imperatives with the stated goal of finding a running mate qualified to assume the duties of the presidency “on day one.”

Sarah Palin may well have concealed inner reservoirs of greatness. I hope so! But I’d guess that John McCain does not have a much better sense of who she is, what she believes, and the extent of her abilities than my enthusiastic friends over at the Corner. It’s a wild gamble, undertaken by our oldest ever first-time candidate for president in hopes of changing the board of this election campaign. Maybe it will work. But maybe (and at least as likely) it will reinforce a theme that I’d be pounding home if I were the Obama campaign: that it’s John McCain for all his white hair who represents the risky choice, while it is Barack Obama who offers cautious, steady, predictable governance.

Here’s I fear the worst harm that may be done by this selection. The McCain campaign’s slogan is “country first.” It’s a good slogan, and it aptly describes John McCain, one of the most self-sacrificing, gallant, and honorable men ever to seek the presidency.

But question: If it were your decision, and you were putting your country first, would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?

Frum subsequently dealt with the reaction to the above post:

A torrent of reader mail has arrived in reply to my Palin posts - so much, that I reluctantly have to accept that I cannot follow my usual rule of answering every non-abusive email, pro or con.

The mail is overwhelmingly critical of me and supportive of the Palin choice, often euphorically so.

Let me summarize reader reactions before adding any new thoughts of my own.

1) Palin may or may not make a good president herself, but if she can help John McCain defeat Barack Obama, the choice will serve the country well.

This reaction is best stated by a mathematically minded friend …

Let’s assume arguendo a worst-case scenario that Palin-as-president would be a disaster without a couple of years of seasoning. Or even that she will never be ready.

Let’s further assume arguendo another worst-case scenario that such an ascension would occur a jaw-dropping 20% of the time because of misfortune befalling President McCain before Palin was ready to assume the presidency.

Does that mean that, by choosing Palin for political reasons, McCain is putting selfish concerns ahead of duty to country?

Not at all. Sure, ideally, the country would elect President Gingrich and Vice President Giuliani by acclamation without anyone even needing to max out their $2300 contributions. But, as the author of Comeback once noted, politics is the art of the possible, and we have to sacrifice some ideals to political reality and the need for compromise. You’re willing to accept a carbon tax to avoid the worse effects of cap-and-trade. And one doesn’t rail against the political consensus and make slashing social security benefits a central plank of a campaign.

Similarly, if McCain raises his chances of winning from 20% by picking Romney to 50% by picking Palin, then one might well prefer the state of the world where [the odds are]:

40% McCain, 10% Palin, 50% Obama/Biden

to [one where the odd are]

16% McCain, 4% Romney, 80% Obama/Biden

if one is similarly despairing of the state of the union under Obama/Biden and a heavily Democratic congress. It’s just a trade of a 10% chance of President Palin for 30% less chance of President Obama. It’s the same sort of compromise as [the one you advocate in your book]: trading a carbon tax for extending the Bush tax cuts—better that than having the Bush tax cuts expire and getting stuck with cap-and-trade.

Why is compromising on the vice presidential slot any different than compromising on the presidential slot? We don’t suicidally insist on running Newt Gingrich as the Republican standard-bearer, even though he’s ideologically purer than John McCain. One can argue that choosing Palin is cynical, but it does not necessarily follow that the choice fails to put country first.

Of course, if one doesn’t believe Palin has that political power to motivate the base and sufficiently improve McCain’s odds, or if one thinks that Palin would be drastically worse than the similarly inexperienced Obama despite the fact that she shows better instincts for doing the right thing, then Palin might well be a choice that makes the country worse off. But that’s still a question of political miscalculation than a betrayal of values.

2) Palin’s accomplishments in Alaska, her strong values, and her appealing public image mean that she would be a good president. Maybe even a great one: after all, Theodore Roosevelt had served only briefly as governor of New York before he was added to the McKinley ticket in 1900.

3) This talk of “qualifications” is elitist and condescending. As one reader put it: “We Americans trust ourselves to run the country much better than the crowd in D.C. has been doing.” Another: “Don’t tell us (those in small towns ) that we don’t have what it takes to keep a county on the right track.”A third: “I have no doubt that there are at least 100,000 Americans who can easily perform the duties of president. 1 out of every 3000. Easy to find. Sarah Palin is one of these. She will do fine.”

4) Okay, maybe she is less prepared than I’d ideally prefer. But how are Obama’s qualifications any better?

Let me start with point 4.

I (and most NRO readers) will vote against Barack Obama because I oppose his ideas. He is (at best) an old-line Walter Mondale taxer, spender, and regulator possibly still under the influence (at worst) of the radical alienation from America preached in his church and expressed in his own early writings. I’d vote against a candidate like this even if he had previously served as CEO of Google, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Governor of California, with a Nobel prize on top of it all.

That said: Can we conservatives please stop kidding ourselves about Barack Obama’s “qualifications”? Yes, if I had been a Democratic donor back in 2006, I’d sure worry about whether Barack Obama had what it took to be president. That was before he took on the toughest political operation in America, before he beat Bill and Hillary Clinton, before he won 18 million primary votes.

Obama’s nomination was not handed to him. He fought hard for it and won against the odds. “Qualifications” predict achievement. Once you have achieved, it doesn’t matter what your qualifications are. Who cares whether the guy who built a big company from nothing didn’t have much of a resume when he started? But if you are applying to run a big company built by somebody else, the resume matters …

The worst mistake in any fight is to under-estimate your opponent’s abilities. Look what happened to the people who under-estimated Reagan. If conservatives are to have any hope in the coming weeks, we should wake up to the fact that we face in Barack Obama a formidable man, who appeals to something important and deep in the American electorate. He’s not a superman, he has vulnerabilities, he can be beaten. But he won’t be beaten until we who are trying to beat him understand why and how he has come so far …

Next #2.

Mark Steyn has a characteristically witty post this morning on Sarah Palin:

Governor Palin is not merely, as Jay describes her, “all-American”, but hyper-American. What other country in the developed world produces beauty queens who hunt caribou and serve up a terrific moose stew? As an immigrant, I’m not saying I came to the United States purely to meet chicks like that, but it was certainly high on my list of priorities. And for the gun-totin’ Miss Wasilla then to go on to become Governor while having five kids makes it an even more uniquely American story. Next to her resume, a guy who’s done nothing but serve in the phony-baloney job of “community organizer” and write multiple autobiographies looks like just another creepily self-absorbed lifelong member of the full-time political class that infests every advanced democracy.

Funny!

But does this kind of iconography really produce good decisions  Who had a more hyper-American background than Ross Perot? The crewcut, the self-made fortune, the military bearing, the good works for POWs peeled off enough Republican votes to elect Bill Clinton in 1992.

I do appreciate Sarah Palin’s genuine achievements in Alaska. Very possibly she would do just fine as vice president. But surely one lesson of the past eight years is that we should all demand more information about our potential party leaders before it’s too late?

And can we please stop this silly TR analogy? In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt had already (1) established himself as one of the country’s leading experts on military affairs, (2) served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and worked ferociously to modernize the American fleet, (3) taken on the then-overwhelming problem of corruption both as New York police commissioner and as a civil service commissioner (in the latter job he was so successful that he was re-appointed by a Democratic president), (4) raised and led a regiment in war, and (5) been elected governor of the nation’s largest state.

Nobody said “Teddy WHO?” when the Republicans put him on the ticket ….

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