The speech Sarah Palin gives tonight at the Republican National Convention will, I predict, be wildly overpraised. It may even put to rest media speculation that Palin is unqualified for the vice-presidential nomination. How do I know this? Because Palin, who remains largely an unknown quantity, is getting beaten up in the press for various trivial shortcomings. Her teenage daughter is pregnant. (What’s that got to do with Palin’s qualifications to be vice president?) She supported the “bridge to nowhere” before she opposed it. (Show me a politician who has never changed his position after a shift in political winds.) Palin holds extreme views on social issues. (With McCain’s base, that can only be an asset.) Palin’s firing of the state police commissioner who refused to fire her state trooper ex-brother-in-law shows some promise as a scandal, but if it turns out to be true that the brother-in-law was making violent threats against Palin’s family, then voters’ sympathy will flow to Palin, regardless of any unethical abuse of power Palin may have engaged in.
These various controversies have been generated as a proxy for what really worries Palin’s detractors, which is the many things they don’t know about her. That’s a legitimate concern, but Garry Wills jumped the gun in a Sept. 3 New York Times op-ed when he compared Palin to George McGovern’s jettisoned first choice for vice president, Tom Eagleton, and suggested that Palin withdraw from the ticket to spare John McCain similar agony.
All this caviling has lowered expectations for Palin’s speech and encouraged political reporters to exaggerate wildly the challenge that it poses for her political survival. “An unknown and barely tested woman from a small town in far away Alaska will make her debut as a would-be global leader in front of the Republican convention, the country, and the world,” writesNewsweek’s Howard Fineman. “No one has the faintest idea what will happen.” Politico’s Martin Kady II goes further: Palin’s speech “will be the most consequential and widely watched vice presidential nomination speech in modern political history.”
Such statements say more about the need to create drama at heavily covered but largely uneventful modern-day political conventions than they do about any suspense surrounding Palin’s speech. Qualified or unqualified to be president, Palin certainly knows how to read from a teleprompter: She used to be a newscaster, for Pete’s sake, and as governor she’s shown herself to have a competent, even warm, presence when delivering a prepared speech. The speech itself will be written by Matthew Scully, an experienced speechwriter who’s served two stints in the White House, most recently for President George W. Bush. The speech’s content will be vetted within an inch of its life by the McCain campaign staff. It will be, at the very worst, an extremely competent and highly controlled performance.
But convention commentary abhors a vacuum. Everything that happens must be milked dry for significance, real or imagined. So before Palin steps up to the podium, TV commentators will go on and on about how crucial it is that Palin do well, because her viability as a vice-presidential candidate will hang in the balance. After Palin steps down from the podium, TV commentators will fall over themselves with astonishment, feigned or sincere, at Palin’s brilliant performance. “A star was born here tonight in St. Paul,” they will say. “This speech eliminates any doubt that Palin is ready for prime time,” they will say. The extravagance of the praise will reflect, in part, the press’s guilty feelings about its recent excesses in beating Palin up. Some talking heads may even crow that this splendid performance shows Palin is ready to be president, should tragedy befall President McCain.
Don’t believe a word of it. Palin may or may not be ready, but her speech won’t tell you anything about that, and the commentary will tell you less than nothing.