Palin In Comparison

Commentary

In Focus

Every contrarian and mischievous bone in my contrarian and mischievous body wants to write a column vigorously defending Sarah Palin. She is at risk of being devoured by a perfect storm of Washington establishment outrage, media frenzy and intellectual or religious snobbery. What an underdog.

But I can't quite do it.

First, I obviously don't know much about her and certainly not enough to have a clear opinion.

Second, her proven skills and her time in the big leagues are thin by historical measure; and her understanding of or instinct toward the Constitution as revealed by some of her God-focused oratory and past positions seems thick. I don't know if it was a cavalier choice John McCain made, but it does not seem to convey proper respect for the office.

Finally, there is no global shortage of opinion about Palin that needs to be filled here.

Instead, let me demystify some conventional (no pun intended) wisdom that is mediating around the wisenheimer world of politics.

History tells us nothing. What do over 200 years of history tell us about minimally qualified vice presidential nominees? Zippo.

Palin is not wildly under-credentialed, though in the modern era, only Dan Quayle rivals her resume. And his ticket won in 1988 when the other aspirant was Lloyd Bentsen, an immensely credentialed public servant. Michael Dukakis was not able to use Quayle's weakness to undermine Bush's argument that he was better-qualified and suited to be president. Why would Obama have better luck?

Look at other presidential elections with no incumbent: Edmund Muskie in 1968 stacked up better than Spiro Agnew, who had been governor of Maryland for only two years; Agnew's team won. Young Dick Nixon had been in Congress only five years when Eisenhower put him on the 1952 Republican dance card, facing off against John Sparkman, who had been in Congress for 15 years; the whippersnapper won.

There were no vast credential gaps in 2000 (Dick Cheney versus Joe Lieberman) or 1960 (Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. versus Lyndon Johnson).

So what is the moral of these stories? It would appear to be that in presidential elections with no incumbent, the ticket with the least experienced person in the No. 2 slot wins. Of course, that is nonsense.

Never underestimate anti-Washington, anti-politics moods like the press always does. The only three candidates to knock off an incumbent president since Franklin Roosevelt clobbered Herbert Hoover in 1932 have been "outsider" governors who ran anti-Washington campaigns: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Most of the press was betting against these guys until the polls became clear, if then.

In 2000, the press didn't believe George W. Bush could run as an outsider, as anti-Washington. But he did. And he squeaked by in a year that should have been a Democratic landslide because the country was enjoying great peace and prosperity under a Democratic administration.

If Palin even marginally enhances the perception that McCain is a maverick personality with anti-establishment instincts (which he is), she might help him. Maybe.

Never underestimate the voters' dislike of the press. For many voters, Palin will gain visceral sympathy simply because the press is feeding on her. If we don't devour her, she will emerge with more intangible support than the press can even imagine. That is exactly what happened to Quayle after a famous surround-and-snarl press conference in his hometown of Huntington, Ind., days after the 1988 convention.

Reporters tend to condemn the Republicans' ability to use press antipathy as a dirty and scurrilous trick. It is no such thing. It is as sensible and legitimate to rage against the press as it is against big pharmaceuticals, tobacco, doctors or lawyers. Bill Clinton used it to great effect.

Bottom line: If the press and pundits instantly and unanimously pooh-pooh Sarah Palin, she must be doing something right. That's how a lot of voters see things.

The present tense exaggerates almost every scandal and potential scandal. I can prove this with two words: Gennifer Flowers. Want two more? OK, Monica Lewinsky.

Post-Gennifer Bill Clinton won the election against an incumbent president who won a war against Iraq. Post-Monica Bill Clinton maintained popularity even if he couldn't get his wife or vice president into the White House. Whitewater, Troopergate and Paula Jones never got him down for the count.

George W. Bush survived stories during his first campaign about anomalies in his National Guard service. Cheney made it through the Halliburton scrutiny. For good or for bad, these things fade away a high percentage of the time.

There is one piece of conventional wisdom that is always suspended around convention time: Vice presidential nominees almost never matter much in the final tally. That old saw happens to be true.

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