While this will be a shock to anyone who has read just about any other column I've written, I speak today in defense of Sarah Palin.
Now, my true feelings about Palin and what is going to happen in Thursday night's vice presidential debate can be found at the end of this column (which -- I promise! -- will cheer up regular readers), but I have to defend what Sarah Palin said about Putin and Russia; because she is being made out to be some sort of incoherent idiot as a result. She may well be incoherent, and I would also venture to suggest that the jury's still out on her idiocy as well, but I haven't seen anyone give her the benefit of the doubt and attempt to explain what she was actually trying to say.
Here is the key section of the interview transcript, from the second of two nights of interviews with Katie Couric of CBS News.
KATIE COURIC: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?
SARAH PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It's funny that a comment like that was kinda made to â€¦ I don't know, you know â€¦ reporters.
PALIN: Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah.
COURIC: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.
PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And thereâ€¦
COURIC: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?
PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.
Now, it absolutely cannot be denied that that was incredibly inarticulate. But there are plenty of other successful politicians that can be downright inarticulate at times, and largely get away with it. Our current occupant of the Oval Office immediately springs to mind.
But that last answer -- although astoundingly inarticulate -- was not complete gibberish. And, I must admit, I feel kind of sorry for Palin because she is being painted as some species of idiot for her answer. She has evenly been openly mocked for her answer (OK, it's a funny graphic, I have to admit). But the point she was trying to make is actually a valid one, which would have (if she had coherently made it) bolstered her "foreign policy credentials."
Here's what she may have been thinking, or what she would have said if she had had a speechwriter to help her out:
"Being Governor of Alaska gives you more national security experience than any other governor in the United States. Because, ever since the Cold War began, the Russians send military flights up to do exploratory missions that come very close to -- and indeed even at times invade -- the airspace of the United States, over Alaskan skies. They send bomber flights, or fighter missions, streaking towards the Alaskan/Russian airspace border all the time -- just to test our response rate and readiness. Interceptors have to scramble from Alaskan military bases and rise up to meet this threat, and we have consistently and bravely done so -- even before we became a state. We in Alaska were on the front lines of the Cold War like no other state in America, and we know what it is like to share a border with a country we cannot trust. Now that Putin has resumed this testing of American military resolve, Alaskans continue to proudly patrol the airspace near our border -- to let Putin know that if he rears his head, we will be there to meet him."
Of course, she didn't say that. Sarah Palin didn't even manage to make it clear that it was military flights -- or even airplanes -- that she was talking about. Or trying to talk about, at any rate.
But because I consider myself a fair (if occasionally unbalanced) reporter, I have to at least try to defend the point she was (so badly) trying to make. Alaska was on the front lines of the Cold War. It's a valid point, especially with a newly-resurgent and newly-belligerent Russia. Being governor in Alaska gives you more foreign policy experience than being governor of Arkansas, for example.
Now, having said all of that, I must admit I'm already mentally popping popcorn, in eager anticipation of this Thursday night's vice presidential debate -- because when it's over, I fully expect Joe Biden to be standing next to tiny pieces of Sarah Palin's credibility, scattered all over the stage.
And he won't even have to attack her himself, it seems. She's going to do it to herself, all on her very own.
Because in that transcript excerpt I provided earlier, the first answer Palin gives is actually her worst. She couldn't even finish her sentence... instead trailing off with a dismissive "... reporters..." complete with a derogatory shake of her head. Her inability to even complete a thought in this example has even staunch conservatives publicly hand-wringing over how she's going to do Thursday night.
Worry they might -- because although she has risen to lead a state (a test which one would assume requires a basic level of political competence), she seems woefully unready for the task at hand.
People have been worrying since John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate whether Joe Biden could "get rough" with her during the debate, since she's a woman and all. He couldn't be seen (the thinking went) to be "beating up on her" too badly, because that would somehow trigger some knee-jerk sympathy for her.
But Joe Biden has been freed from this conundrum, as the rest of the Couric interview so painfully makes obvious.
Because all Joe's going to have to do is stand back and let Gwen Ifill tie Palin up into knots. And the whole country's going to be watching when it happens. While Palin's been fairly adept at memorizing the talking points being fed to her right now (you can almost see her visualize the three-by-five cards in her mind while she talks), she memorizes these slogans so perfectly that it becomes painfully obvious that she's just read the Cliff's Notes -- especially when she starts to repeat herself. Because she really seems not to know what she's saying. She's like a student who has crammed for the big test and knows the "book answer" to the question... but doesn't really know what the answer means, when you ask her to explain it in context.
My guess: independent and uncommitted voters are not going to be impressed with what they see from Palin, no matter how low "media expectations" are set beforehand. And Obama's poll numbers will continue to rise as a direct result.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant