03 October 2008

Peggy Noonan Channels Sarah Palin

In a spiraling column in today's Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan heaps praise on Sarah Palin's populist win in last night's debate. "She killed. She had him at 'Nice to meet you. Hey, can I call you Joe?' She was the star. He was the second male lead, the good-natured best friend of the leading man."

In fairness to Noonan, I thought that was a pretty great move as well. And for the first twenty minutes of the debate, I really thought Palin sizzled. She managed to duck and weave fairly well, bring her attacks without coming off as overtly negative, style responses carefully enough to acknowledge that she wasn't going to answer the question without sounding like she didn't know how to answer the question.

On detail after detail, however, and on point after point, Biden cut through the gauze of smoke and mirrors and artfully pointed out that he didn't hear an answer, or that the political rhetoric is fine and good, but the "details matter." Certainly, Palin brought style to the stage last night. But Joe Biden brought the substance, and he brought it all night long. Noonan calls it "forbearance. Too much forbearance." And right about there, in the fourth paragraph of her column, Noonan loses me.

She doesn't lose me because I don't understand the word forbearance, and not even because I disagree strongly, but because, from that point on, it is clear that the best of her prose has already been spent lavishing Sarah Palin's "Joe Sixpack" performance.

When Biden spoke articulately and specifically about Iraq, Sarah Palin needed a moment before she could rebutt. It was the first time I thought I saw her blink all night, and in the pause before the words came she blanched and then stammered "Your plan is a white flag of surrender!" Noonan clearly watched this moment from a different vantage point, because she credits Palin with scorching the Obama-Biden ticket on that single line and saving John McCain's bacon. Frankly, I thought that line signaled Palin's chief weakness: she doesn't know what's going on, doesn't understand what she's heard, can't name the players, and can't stand toe-to-toe on the issues.

Indeed, Noonan is aware that "the heart of [Palin's] message was a populist pitch." My question is "So what?" Noonan believes the second coming of Sarah has commenced, and that adoring fans will be so excited by the latest Sarah Palin activity that the "jumping" will begin; fans will bounce and jump as they wait the rope lines and catch their first glimpses of Sarah at any campaign event. "She will re-electrify the base."

And that, I argue, is immaterial. John McCain doesn't need the base to win the election, he needs the undecideds. Sarah Palin showed heart and style last night, but she avoided substance at every turn. She manipulated the stage to great advantage, to be sure, speaking clearly and directly to the cameras and therefore to the people, and she did her best to neutralize the experience gap between herself and her opponent. "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also." "Oh, yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider." "And how long have I been at this, like five weeks?" "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard."

All that, however, is part of the problem. Generalizations about Joe Sixpacks and hockey moms aside, the American people really do want their public servants, especially at the highest level in the land, to be informed and educated about the issues. Sarah Palin's five weeks of VP-level politics don't cut it, not even close. Noonan misses this point entirely in her babbling praise of Palin, and then babbles right off topic and nearly off the page. Only half the post, if that much, is actually about Palin. The rest, and this is where Noonan channels Palin, becomes a lost musing on the state of the economic crisis, the clamor of telephones ringing all over Capitol Hill, this singular moment-in-the-making in American history, the current status of the "presidential meltdown," what it means for America, why the House bailout bill failed Monday, how that failure represents the distrust of the American people for government to find solutions, how all this reflects poorly on Joe Biden, how young Reagan aides used to complain that the president was not bold enough, why it's more important than ever to elect a VP who doesn't understand the problems to reassure the public that Washington is truly an ally, and how Tina Fey's parodies can bring us real happiness.


As I read, I thought I was listening to another Palin/Couric interview. The whole final half of the column devolves into a bizarre and disconnected-from-reality assessment of politics and pop culture, I suppose. I genuinely do not understand Noonan's bottom line. I don't even know if there was one. I keep rereading, searching for the pivot and not finding it. What the hell is Nooonan on about? Finally, a guy has to just scratch his head and move on.