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Dueling debates

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Faculty links

Andrew Cohen

In one of those magical moments brought to you by television, Canadians could watch their leaders debating each other at the same time as Americans were watching theirs. The contrast was illuminating.

The candidates spoke in different countries on different topics. But if you opted for the split screen, you could learn something sad about politics in America.

And if you’re Canadian, you could feel superior about your country. Smugness comes too easily to Canadians, yet this time with reason.

Consider the vice-presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Actually, consider Ms. Palin.

After her performance, commentators drew liberally from a fund of flattering adjectives. She was “feisty”, “quick”, “resilient”, “aggressive”, “combative.” She was also “folksy”, “colloquial”, and “populist”.

The normally sensible David Brooks of The New York Times was sympathetic while Rich Lowry of National Review was smitten. Others were more neutral. Beyond the paid partisans on CNN, few dismissed her out of hand.

And yet, to other eyes, her performance in the debate in particular – and her candidacy in general – is a farce. Opéra bouffe. An absurdity. Only a few conservative commentators (such as David Frum and Charles Krauthammer) have had the courage to say so, most choosing more genteel words.

Perhaps they worry about alienating the folks who love Ms. Palin. Perhaps they worry about being seen as elitist. They don’t want to call her what she is: incurious, untutored and unready — Annie Oakley without Annie Oakley’s virtues.

But in the dominion of the dilettante, Sarah Palin is queen. She isn’t just the descent of politics; she is, in a sense, the end of politics – a conventional politics of standards, rules and minimum expectations.

Up to now, candidates for the vice-presidency have had credentials. Since 1960, they have included Henry Cabot Lodge, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Walter Mondale, Gerald Ford, George W. Bush, Robert Dole, Geraldine Ferraro, Jack Kemp, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman.

 Some would become president. Most would not. All were persons of distinction, both in politics and in life. Even those who were failures – the corrupt Spiro Agnew and the dense Dan Quayle – could be seen as credible, if unorthodox, running mates when they were chosen.

Sarah Palin is neither credible nor distinguished, and she hasn’t the humility to see it. Her audacity is breathtaking. Once upon a time she would have been disqualified from consideration, even if she were from a strategic vote-rich state, which she isn’t. No serious nominee would have named her.

But the standard has so fallen so far that it is now acceptable – indeed laudable – to invite an ingénue like Sarah Palin to run with a septuagenarian who has had four bouts of cancer.

It doesn’t matter that she has been governor for just 18 months. Or that she attended five colleges in six years. Or that she cannot name the magazines or newspapers she reads. Or that she has travelled nowhere. Ideology trumps everything.

In the debate she struggled stringing together a sentence –Eliza Doolittle before Henry Higgins taught her to talk. Droppin’ the ‘g’s”, exclaiming “doggone!” she was like a jumped-up cheerleader in pompoms running for Student Council. She mangled words, mispronounced names. She consistently ignored questions, which the weak moderator allowed to go unchallenged.

Predictably, she “exceeded expectations.” She stood and spoke and neither drooled nor fainted. That was good enough.

Against her, Joe Biden was reserved, authoritative, polite and polished. She called him “Joe” and he called her “Governor.” He responded coolly to her volley of misrepresentations and veil of lies – deceit being her currency, from bridges to earmarks to Russia. She cannot even quote Madeleine Albright correctly.

Now, intoxicated with self-importance, she barnstorms around America tying Barack Obama to a terrorist and suggesting Mr. Obama is unAmerican. This is now the strategy of slur and smear. And if you wondered, John McCain approved this ad.

So, if you needed some relief the other night, you could turn the channel to Stephen, Stéphane, Jack, Gilles and Liz. Their discussion was barbed and stormy, but also useful and intelligent.

In terms of education, experience or intellect, no one could say the leaders of the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are imposters. They spoke in both English and in French, over two nights, gamely accepting that a second language is a requirement of leaders in Canada.

All three have earned their stripes in the politics. None is charismatic or inspiring or Ms. Congeniality, though each has some humility.

Whatever their views, they spoke well of us and our politics. No, none is Barack Obama. But none is Sarah Palin, either.

This column first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 7

Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, is the author of Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson.