Palin's Pluck and Pragmatism

Palin's Pluck and Pragmatism

By Robert Tracinski - September 22, 2008

It is clear that the press wants their man Barack Obama to win--and as a result, they have obscured rather than illuminated our attempt to make an objective assessment of who Sarah Palin is, how she thinks, and what she stands for. And as I have pointed out, the worst consequence of this transparent bias may turn out to be that the press has destroyed the credibility it would need to make valid criticisms of Palin.

But there is enough information available to begin making our own independent assessment of Palin, using the bits and pieces we can discern through this veil of press partisanship. To do this, let's move past irrelevant details of her biography and past the debatable elements in her record. Let's look at what we can find out about Sarah Palin's ideas and principles.

The upshot of most of the smears targeting Palin is that she is a religious zealot. But we now know that she didn't try to ban books at Wasilla's public library, she didn't try to mandate the teaching of creationism in public schools, and she does not, so far as anyone knows, actually think that dinosaurs are "lizards of Satan." The one clear indication we have as to the degree of her religious commitment is the fact that she is opposed to abortion in all cases, making an exception only to protect the life of the mother. And we know she means it because she chose to give birth to her youngest child even though she knew from genetic testing that it would have Down Syndrome, a severe form of mental retardation.

This fact does reveal a profoundly faith-driven outlook, because it illuminates Palin's implicit attitude toward reason and the intellect. The joy of having a child is watching it grow and develop on its way to becoming an independent adult capable of enjoying a full human life. This is why parents rejoice in every new discovery the child makes along the way--his first steps, his first words, the first time he figures out how to open up and rifle through your filing cabinets while you're trying to work (but I digress). The tragedy of giving birth to a mentally disabled child is that he will never complete this journey. He will never become an independent adult or develop a full use of the faculty that is man's essential characteristic: his reasoning mind. To knowingly choose to bring such a child into the world is evidence that the precepts of her faith take precedence over the value of the mind in Palin's view of the world.

That said, a New York Times profile on Palin's religious views is surprisingly anodyne. She believes in prayer, she believes in the truth of the Bible, "and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning--including scrutiny...for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent." Which is to say that she is pretty much a standard-issue American Christian. In fact, the big news from the New York Times article is that "the Palins moved to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church in 2002, in part because its ministry is less 'extreme' than Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God."

When she became governor of Alaska, she asked her childhood pastor for a verse from the Bible. Did she ask about the Bible's view on birth control, or homosexuality, or taxes, or any overtly political topic? No, he says, "She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership." That's more Steven Covey than Jerry Falwell.

Barack Obama's religious associations--think of Jeremiah Wright and his "black liberation theology"--are much more disturbing.

Moreover, Governor Palin has soft-pedaled her religious views so far in the campaign. In the big speech that introduced her at the Republican convention, she didn't even mention abortion. In Charles Gibson's ABC interview, when he misquoted her as saying that the Iraq war was "a task that is from God," she replied that "I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words." And when asked what she thinks God's plan for the world is, her reply was very revealing: "I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan...[is] for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Which is to say that she agrees with John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. This is the typical American "religion of the pursuit of happiness"--the combination of religious faith with the Enlightenment view of happiness as the proper goal of human life and freedom as the essence of the proper political system.

In short, if Palin has a radical religious agenda, it remains unstated.

If she is not a religious zealot, is Governor Palin a pro-free-marketer? Evidence for this comes from the refutation of an early rumor that Palin campaigned for the arch-religious conservative Pat Buchanan in 1996; in fact, she campaigned for Steve Forbes, the most pro-free-market candidate in that year's Republican primary.

But the only economic issue on which we know much about her views is energy. She is pro-oil-exploration and pro-drilling, and she has told one interviewer that she is skeptical that global warming is caused by human activity--positions that appeal to staunch advocates of a free economy. On the other hand, she has continued her state's heavy intervention in the oil and gas industry. The state of Alaska has no state sales tax or income tax, but that does not exactly make it a low-tax state. Instead, it lives off of taxes on oil and gas revenues, which fund all of the state's expenditures and even allow the government to send an annual check to each of its citizens granting them a share of the state's oil loot. This bears less resemblance to a laissez-faire economy than it does to your typical Persian Gulf sheikdom.

Palin's signature achievement in office has been to negotiate a major deal for a pipeline to pump natural gas from the Alaskan oil fields down to the lower forty-eight. This is a crucial achievement for her state, because oil production in the North Slope fields is declining, but they contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that cannot be used because there is no economical way to transport it. Thus, a pipeline is necessary to keep Alaska's energy industry from shrinking. Yet Palin's pipeline deal included half a billion dollars in government subsidies to the builder.

In short, Palin is more pro-energy than she is pro-free-market. In the context of today's anti-energy environmentalist movement, that's not bad, but it does not make her a champion of economic freedom. In fact, the Gibson interview did reveal her approach to the question of the size and role of government. On the subject of economic policies, she came out in favor of low taxes, telling Gibson that "government has got to get out of the way, in some respects, of the private sector, being able to create the jobs that we need." But when asked how she would reduce government spending, here was her reply:

We're going to find efficiencies in every department. We have got to.... When bureaucrats, when bureaucracy just gets kind of comfortable, going with the status quo and not being challenged to find efficiencies and spend other people's money wisely...then that's where we get into the situation that we are into today, and that is a tremendous growth of government, a huge debt, trillions of dollars of debt that we're passing on to my kids and your kids and your grandkids.

Here is what I said about that when Barack Obama also proposed to pay for middle-class tax cuts by "go[ing] through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less": "Does anyone remember the Grace Commission in the 1980s or Al Gore's task force in the 1990s? Eliminating 'waste, fraud, and abuse' is a perennial promise made by politicians, but it will never produce significant results, because you can't pare down a $3 trillion federal budget by squeezing out dimes."

Similarly, when pressed on the subject of "earmarks," such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere," Governor Palin replied that she was opposed only to the "abuse" of federal earmarks, explaining that "I [am] for infrastructure being built in the state. And it's not inappropriate for a mayor or for a governor to request and to work with their Congress and their congressmen, their congresswomen, to plug into the federal budget along with every other state, a share of the federal budget for infrastructure."

Unlike the "small-government conservatives," I don't make a big deal over earmarks or even federal transportation spending, because these things are trivial compared to the programs that are really driving federal spending. At their height, earmarks were about $30 billion per year--out of a $3 trillion federal budget. What is really causing the federal budget to balloon is the big middle-class welfare programs, Social Security and Medicare, and neither Palin nor McCain have said anything about cutting or privatizing those programs.

On economics and the size of government, Palin offers some vague rhetoric about low taxes and about government not being the solution for everything--but concretely, all she really offers is the promise that she and John McCain will be really tough "reformers" who will squeeze out waste in existing government programs and that they will be honest Pragmatists who will distinguish the good earmarks from the bad ones.

What about foreign policy? Sarah Palin has no record at all on foreign policy, and the campaign is certainly hoping that voters will look to McCain on that issue.

From what we can gather from her interviews, Palin has her heart in the right place: she believes in the importance of defending America and winning the War on Terrorism. Asked how she felt about accepting the vice-presidential nomination, she told Gibson that she was committed to the "mission" of a potential McCain administration, and she defined that mission as "reform of this country and victory in the war."

But it was clear that she had no knowledge of some very big and important foreign policy issues and a very shallow knowledge of others. The big gaffe, of course, was her blank response to Gibson's question about whether she agreed with the Bush Doctrine. I will grant that Gibson's question was phrased as a "gotcha," and that Gibson himself did not get the meaning of the Bush Doctrine right. But it was not just that Palin chose the wrong idea as the meaning of the Bush Doctrine; it was that she appeared to connect no meaning to the term. When asked what she thought the Bush Doctrine was, she replied, "His worldview?"

Like I said, this is a bad time to try to assess Palin, because our view of her will be obscured by partisan arguments from both sides--and the partisans from the right have leapt to defend Palin's ignorance on the Bush Doctrine. In the process, they have defined the term out of existence, arguing, as Charles Krauthammer does, that "there is no single meaning of the Bush Doctrine."

Gibson defined the Bush Doctrine as "anticipatory self-defense," i.e., attacking in order to stop an imminent attack from the enemy. But that principle is as old as war itself. The central tenet of the Bush Doctrine is a specific form of pre-emption: unilateral military action to prevent terrorist-sponsoring regimes from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. By muddying this identification, the conservative partisans are doing themselves and the country a great disservice, because the real Bush Doctrine is an idea that deserves to be preserved and defended, especially now when we ought to be invoking it against Iran.

What emerged very clearly from Palin's foreign policy questions--and also, to a certain extent, from her replies on domestic policy--is a lack of contact and familiarity with the national debate on these questions.

Decades of inside-the-beltway experience is no guarantee that a politician will know what he is doing; just look at Joe Biden. But not being immersed in the concrete facts about the big issues of the day is an enormously liability; it undercuts a leader's ability to make timely, independent judgments about events. Take, for example, Barack Obama's slow and confused response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. At first, he didn't realize the event was important enough to interrupt his vacation, then it took him a full week of conferring with his advisors to come around to something close to the position John McCain started with.

And the problem is not just knowledge of the facts. It is also important for a leader to be familiar with the debate on these issues, because he has to be a champion for the correct side in that debate, making his case to the nation and beating back arguments from the opposition. McCain's recent floundering on the economy--and the immediate loss of his lead in the polls--shows what happens when a leader is caught in unfamiliar intellectual territory and loses a round in the national debate. On foreign policy and national defense, Sarah Palin is the one caught in unfamiliar territory, with most of the right sympathies, but no fixed ideas on basic principles and policy.

So how is it that Palin has electrified the right? I have argued before that she has served to unite the various ideological factions of the Republican Party behind the McCain-Palin ticket. But these ideological factions are simply projecting their hopes onto her--and they are going beyond what she has so far earned. They are doing this because they are reacting to her personality, her attitude, her sense of life--which is more or less how the party chose McCain in the first place.

Republicans chose McCain because of his biography, his character, and his sense of honor--even though that "honor" is grounded in a Pragmatist grab-bag of emotional reactions, rather than any coherent ideology. In this respect, McCain truly has chosen his political "soul mate." If the essence of McCain's approach to politics can be described as "honor and pragmatism," Sarah Palin's approach should be described as "pluck and pragmatism": an appealing, cheerful, can-do spunkiness--backed by largely unformed ideas about the nature and role of government.

For this reason, Sarah Palin's appeal--both within the party and among the general public--is not best understood by reference to any ideological category. She is best understood as a conservative populist whose appeal is not ideological but cultural. Her appeal is not that she represents any particular set of ideas or takes any particular side in the political debate. Her appeal is non-ideological: it is the fact that she represents the outlook of the "regular people" as opposed to the "elites."

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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