Friday, October 03, 2008

Jeepers, Veepers

Well, bygollygosh, Sarah—is it OK if I call you Sarah?—ya’ didn’t stare blankly into the camera like a moose in headlights, or make sick allover that pretty jacket yer wearin’, so I guess you can be vice president now fershure.

And what, dear readers, does being vice president mean to Sarah Palin? In her “own” words:

PALIN: I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies. . . .

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.

Whoa, Sally! What are you saying there? The United States Constitution allows for the Vice President to take more power if he or she chooses? More than the current usurper? Really? The powers of the vice president are a matter of choice? (So, now you’re pro-choice, are ya’?) And, given the choice, you are going to make sure that legislature—the Senate—that you have chosen to take under your wing will be “supportive and cooperative” of and with the president, President McCain? Do I have all this right?

I don’t know if I have to spell out all the problems here, I mean, Senator Joe Biden did give it a good go in his response:

Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. The idea he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.

But I want to go just a bit further. No vice president—or president, for that matter—gets to choose how much or what kind of power he or she will have. To structure the government that way is to assert that we are a government of men (and/or women) and not a government of laws. The roles of the executive branch are pretty well defined after two centuries of amendments, laws, and court decisions, and if we had had a legislative branch worth its salt these last eight years, President Bush and Vice President Cheney would have been firmly told to play those roles—no improvising allowed.

In a debate that will likely be judged mostly on its intangibles, I found this the most terrifying substantive point. Sarah Palin, who once “joked” that she was waiting for someone to tell her what a vice president does (she wasn’t joking—this is just another post-hoc rationale for a bad answer out of the McCain-Palin team), has now decided that the only thing that constrains her vice presidential authority are the boundaries of her own ambition.

I figure that sounds like a great self-help mantra, but it makes, as Joe Biden said, for a fucking awful government.

That one of the night’s biggest revelations/gaffes came in an answer to a follow-up question is not a surprise, but that there were so few of these follow-up opportunities was surprising.

When I heard earlier in the week that Gwen Ifill had fallen and broken her ankle while carrying her debate material down the stairs, I imagined Thursday’s moderator precariously balancing a stack of briefing books—giant three-ring binders that went flying though the air when she fell. After seeing Ifill at the debate, I now envision two three-by-five note cards fluttering slowly to the floor.

Ifill asked broad, generic questions with few specifics, few facts from the candidates’ records, few quotes from their prior statements, and almost no follow-ups.

Ifill asked a broad question about Pakistan and Iran; Palin answered by talking about Iraq. Did Ifill say, “But I asked for your thoughts on Pakistan and Iran”? No.

Palin stated that the McCain health plan wouldn’t require tax increases and was revenue neutral; even the McCain campaign has admitted that their plan will levy taxes against the value of private health insurance policies and that the program will require additional federal money. Did Ifill challenge Palin with these points? No.

Palin repeatedly called the NATO commander in Afghanistan “General McClellan” (his name is McKiernan) and then asserted that he didn’t say that a surge in Afghanistan wouldn’t work (he said exactly that). Did Ifill call her on either of these gaffes? No.

Palin claimed that she has a record as a non-partisan executive, saying, “You do what I did as governor. And you appoint people regardless of party affiliation. Democrats, independents, Republicans, you walk the walk, don't just talk the talk.” Well, numerous news outlets have published facts quite to the contrary (like this NYT exposé)—did Ifill call out the governor on this? No.

Palin announced that she wasn’t obligated to answer the questions that were being put to her by the moderator. Did Ifill even push back on that one? Amazingly, no!

It was a remarkably deficient performance, proven more so by the last two weeks worth of Katie Couric clips. (Couric, not previously known for her tough interviews, managed to reveal much about Sarah Palin simply by asking, and re-asking, if necessary, for clarification and specifics.) Maybe it was the painkillers prescribed for her ankle, but whatever the reason, Ifill did America—and the candidates, really—a great disservice.

Joe Biden didn’t exactly knock it out of the box. The Senator started the debate bogged down in numbers, and I felt the sightlines made Biden’s brow look more prominent and severe than I’ve ever seen it, making him look a little too Herman Munster for my tastes. But, as the evening wore on, Joe warmed up—and looked up—finishing with passion and heart. He was a solid defender of the proposals outlined by the top of his ticket, and he spoke with an easily recognizable authority on most issues. It was in stark contrast to Palin’s attempts to run from the Bush-McCain record, and, as time wound down, cram in her money shots. I found myself thinking: Joe Biden spoke from his experience; Sarah Palin spoke from her notes.

So, Palin, with her well-rehearsed talking points and even more practiced “Joe Six-pack” (her words) folksiness lives to fight another day. . . or, I’m guessing, given what happened with Couric, Palin more likely lives to hide another day. She didn’t look or sound any more qualified to run a country (any country), but she didn’t get herself kicked off the ticket, either. The race will likely continue pretty much in the same direction it was going before this debate—as will the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the reconstruction of New Orleans, the illegal domestic spying, the privatization of our public institutions, and the cronyism, calumny, and corruption of the last eight years.

Sure, Sarah, even a small town hockey mom can run for the future vice president of the United States. . . but you can’t hide from your party’s past.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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