September 26th, 2008

What Do Laura and Carly Have In Common? An Inability to Lie about Sarah

by Philip Baruth

I’ve been having some nice back-and-forth this morning with a couple of Republican VDB-readers, who’ve been gamely arguing that Sarah Palin really is sort of qualified for the job of Vice President. And the argument is fun to have: it isn’t every subject in this election where you feel like you’re tossing your rocks downhill, while your opponents are having to heave theirs up as best they can.

But a couple of things bear mentioning. First, the mere fact that the debate about experience persists, and looks to persist until Election Day, and continues to draw in Conservatives who finally can’t sign off on the Palin pick, that fact alone demonstrates the diminishing returns on McCain’s investment.

After a flurry of interest, and a quick flare of pride that the GOP had finally managed to put a woman on a national ticket, Sarah Palin has boiled down to an earnest discussion about sheer basic competence, not exactly a fight Republicans need to be having post-Bush.

But something else struck me, as I went over the various arguments and counter-arguments in my mind: the only two McCain or Bush surrogates to address Palin’s lack of experience head-on, without any desperate spin or delusional fabrication, have been women.

Two, to be exact. Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Laura Bush, former librarian and wife of George W. Bush.

Famously, Fiorina was asked point blank whether Sarah Palin was capable of running a major company like Hewlett-Packard. It’s striking to listen to the tape of the radio exchange. There’s an instant in which Fiorina considers the question, considers a dodge, and then simply states the truth, point blank:

“No, I don’t,” responded Fiorina. “But you know what? That’s not what she’s running for.”

Sure, Fiorina tries to walk it back just a bit, but the implications there are even worse: that something complex and important Palin couldn’t run, but she’ll do just fine with something simple and risk-free like the Vice Presidency.

But what’s worth focusing on is the way that Fiorina considers spinning, temporizing, hedging, and then simply can’t. Because she knows how hard she, Fiorina, had to work at Hewlett-Packard, and she wouldn’t let Palin within a mile of a CEO’s chair.

Take another look at that photo at the top of this post. Fiorina was given to understand that she was on the short list for the Vice Presidency herself; she was flying around on McCain’s jet, speaking as his surrogate, and was no doubt encouraged to think she might be the out of the box pick this time out.

She wasn’t, of course, and that may have something to do with her notable directness when asked about Palin’s qualifications. But one thing is certain: Fiorina was hustled off the stage very quickly after that response, very quickly indeed.

The second highly-placed Bush/McCain woman to speak truth, simply and without fanfare, was Laura Bush.

Asked by CNN’s Zain Verjee if she thought Palin’s resume included sufficient foreign policy experience, Bush said, “Of course she doesn’t have that.”

“You know, that’s not been her role,” she continued, “But I think she is a very quick study, and fortunately John McCain does have that sort of experience.”

How refreshing: no furious up-is-downism, no references to islands off the coast of Alaska, just a straight-up acknowledgment of the obvious, with a nicely executed pivot to make the exchange a wash, which is, of course, the best the McCain folk can hope for on the Palin experience question.

But again, why is it the women in this equation who are simply not going to gussy up Palin’s CV? In this case, no doubt Laura Bush believes, with good cause, that she, Laura Bush, is more qualified than Sarah Palin when it comes to foreign policy experience.

In that sense, it’s the same as the Fiorina questioning. In both cases, a highly placed and highly acclaimed woman is asked whether Palin is qualified, not to be Vice President in the abstract, but specifically to do what they themselves do. Laura Bush visits other countries all the time, works with various world leaders and their staffs, and has at various points tried gingerly to nudge her husband on certain foreign policy issues, most notably the situation in Burma.

So when she’s asked point blank, Do you think Palin could do what you do, right now, with no further training, Laura Bush says not just no, but “of course not.”

And of course not is, of course, the correct answer.

The First Lady and the ex-CEO are willing to spin, in other words, unless it’s about what’s closest their own hearts: their work, their achievements, their own merit.

Do I expect this post to change the minds of my Republican friends on the question of Palin’s fitness? Not for an instant. Do I expect them to email me twice as many times tomorrow? I most certainly do.

Is that a problem? Not in the least. If only everyone, of every party, would spend tomorrow emailing about it.