Monday, September 15, 2008
On Sarah Palin
John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate got me thinking. More accurately, the overwhelmingly positive response she’s gotten from the conservative base has got me wondering what’s going on over there.
See, Sarah Palin’s resume, as we all know, is pretty thin. Being mayor of a small town in Alaska and then governor of Alaska for a little less than two years does not, one would think, qualify a person for the second-highest office in the United States of America, and yet she’s been received as (I’m not kidding) the second coming of Ronald Regan and, for those slightly more history-inclined, Margaret Thatcher, this according to The Telegraph (UK).
Why? Margaret Thatcher was a Member of Parliament for around twenty years before she became Prime Minister, and Reagan was governor of California for eight years, which, I would certainly contend, is roughly the equivalent of running a second-tier advanced, industrial democracy. Italy, maybe.
Anyway, I decided I wanted to get a better grip on Sarah Palin’s resume, so I did some looking.
Let me first say that I will be the last person to say that pure “experience” is the only qualifier for high office in this country, as a true-blue Barack Obama supporter I couldn’t be so bold. No, there’s more to it than that. There always has been. Lincoln, after all, was a never-heard-of-him Congressman and State Legislator before he became the greatest President of them all. And I also don’t really intend to suggest that simply governing a lot of people by itself counts as experience; I think Kwame Kilpatrick has shown us that, if nothing else.
But with all that said, we can learn a thing or two from statistics. Follow me, if you will, on a journey of discovery. A journey not unlike that of Captain Willard, going up the river in search of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. What, my friends, has Sarah Palin actually done?
I guess we’ll start in Wasilla. She was first elected to the City Council there in 1992 being reelected in 1995 but only serving one year of her second term, running for Mayor in 1996. She won and served two terms, losing her seat in 2002 because of term limits. All this, and most of the rest, from Wikipedia by the way. As much as that might mean to some that this is just another Liberal hatchet job, I don’t think it’s possible to revise things like the mayoral duties or population of the City of Wasilla enough to turn a qualified candidate into an unqualified one.
With that said, I’m now going to quote Wikipedia’s entry on mayoral duties in the City of Wasilla, which is attributed to this Washington Post article:
The duties of Wasilla's mayor are more circumscribed than those of many other mayors in the United States. The mayor of Wasilla supervises the police department, which was created three years before Palin took office, the public works department, the parks and recreation department, a planning office, a library and a small history museum. Firefighting and schools are handled by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough [county] government, and the state government handles social services and environmental regulation, such as storm water management for building projects. Palin described her duties as mayor to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper: "It's not rocket science. It's $6 million and 53 employees."
I would call that statement, made (I would hope) before she knew she was going to be running for Vice President, an honest assessment of her job by a small town mayor. Just how small is Wasilla? According to the 2000 Census, it has a population of 5,469. For comparison’s sake, the municipality in Genesee County that is closest population-wise (using figures from the 2000 Census from here on) is the City of Davison, at 5,536. In fact, of the twenty eight units of local government in Genesee County measured by the US Census Bureau (cities, townships and charter townships) no less than twenty two of them have more people than Wasilla. Humble Gaines Township had almost exactly 1,000 more people in 2000 than Wasilla did. To put it another way, if Wasilla city were picked up and dropped in Genesee County, Michigan it would only be the twenty third largest local government in the whole county.
But of course, it’s unfair of me (and possibly sexist, I’m sure) to put Alaska in the context of Michigan. After all, there are no less than three counties in Michigan (Macomb at 788,149, Oakland at 1,214,361 and Wayne at 2,061,162, and Kent and Genesee are in the ballpark) that have more people than Alaska (683,487) has in the whole state.
Alaska is, after all, sort of a different animal. It’s not what you might call a “normal” state, with a diversified economy and traditional infrastructure. Alaska is primarily a source of raw materials (oil, natural gas, fish, timber, snow, etc.) and, historically like most places on the periphery of an empire, is home to a large military population. They import the vast majority of their food and manufactured goods from the rest of the country. It very much lives up to its nickname, “The Last Frontier.”
What does that mean for Sarah Palin as governor? In my opinion, she largely hasn’t really been dealing with the sorts of problems that the country generally deals with. Surely, the governor of Alaska faces challenges that many other governors do not and I assure you that I’m not trying to minimize them, but Alaska has nothing resembling a large urban area of the kind familiar to most of the rest of the country. Only the Anchorage metro area, with around 360,000 people, comes close, and that’s still around 80,000 fewer people than even the Flint metro area.
Again, I’m not saying that being governor of Alaska is not necessarily enough qualification for being put first in line to the Presidency. But the simple fact of the matter is that Sarah Palin has not been doing the job very long, not even two years. Frankly, I can’t really see how being mayor of a small town and then governor of a state that bears only superficial resemblance to any other state in the union could qualify a person for the second highest office in America.
Which leads to my conclusion, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.
Allow me to explain: according the most recent polls, found here, President Bush’s approval rating is somewhere between 28 and 34%, even though most in the field (including a lot of conservatives) are generally coming to regard his Presidency as a failure. Who are these ~31% of us? They’re the reason the Palin bounce happened. They’re the reason it just doesn’t matter that she’s not qualified in any real sense to run the country. The GOP machine, in my humble opinion, could have pushed any arch-conservative, 40-something, moderately attractive woman out onto the stage in St. Paul and talked itself into believing that she was not only qualified for the job, but that all of the strikes against her were in fact strong pluses. Small town mayor? Small town values! Short career? Washington outsider! Governor of the 47th most populous state in the union for less than two years? Executive experience! Pentecostal conservative with unmarried-yet-pregnant daughter? Family values!
It’s not Sarah Palin. It has almost nothing to do with her. It’s the groupthink that pervades the GOP establishment that made this monster. I can’t say it enough: John McCain could have picked a two-term commissioner from some county in West Texas and after one good speech at the convention she, too, would have been the next Reagan or Thatcher as far as the base was concerned.
My hope now is that this won’t last, but frankly I’m getting worried. I’m concerned that the traction she’s getting among the “White Working Class” (which is as we know code for the nightmare combination of  low-to-middle income blue collar workers who usually vote Democratic but just really aren’t sure they can vote for a black man and  those really, really angry women who were Hillary Clinton supporters) is not going to let up, that they really are buying her story as a rough-hewn, huntin’, fishin’, steel worker marryin’ hockey mom in the way that the Democrats were hoping they’d buy Barack Obama’s story of a boy with an absentee father, raised by good, God-fearing, salt-of-the-Earth grandparents who made his own way in life and has devoted it to helping raise others up. They might have had a better chance with a white man who didn’t have the same middle name as some former Arab dictators we know.
But that didn’t help John Edwards much, I suppose. Lucky for the Democrats.
In any case, only time will tell. It could be that this bump is merely the natural side effect of a female Veep candidate and completely to be expected. Maybe all those Hillary ladies will realize how much they’ve been pandered to, and maybe all of those blue collar whites in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania will realize how little the governor of a state that pays you to live there really understands what it’s like to be poor in their dead-broke, job-losing hometowns.
At the very least, I think we’re going to learn a lot about race and gender attitudes in this country in the next couple of months. Probably in the ugliest way possible.