Monday, September 8, 2008

Analysis: Sarah Palin: Vice Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech

Following are excerpts of Gov. Sarah Palin's (R-AK) speech [RCP Transcript: Sarah Palin's Address to the RNC, September 03, 2008] in which she accepted the Republican Party's nomination for vice president:

It was just a year ago when all the experts in Washington counted out our nominee because he refused to hedge his commitment to the security of the country he loves. With their usual certitude, they told us that all was lost -- there was no hope for this candidate who said that he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war. But the pollsters and pundits overlooked just one thing when they wrote him off. They overlooked the caliber of the man himself -- the determination, resolve, and sheer guts of Senator John McCain. The voters knew better. And maybe that's because they realize there is a time for politics and a time for leadership ... a time to campaign and a time to put our country first.

Comment: There's a few questionable assertions in this.

Certainly, in 2007, there were a lot of people -- I assume these are "the experts" Palin is referring to, though she doesn't name names -- who believed that McCain couldn't win the Republican presidential nomination because of his position on Iraq. McCain advocated deploying more combat troops to Iraq, and polls indicated strong opposition to this policy among voters, which led many people to believe McCain would not be viable as a presidential candidate.

But they weren't counting McCain out "because he refused to hedge his commitment to the security of the country he loves". They were simply saying that there appeared to be a disconnect between McCain and many voters on an issue that was important to those voters, and claiming that that disconnect did not bode well for his political prospects. Palin's remarks almost make it sound as if "the experts" were advocating that presidential candidates be complacent and "hedge" on matters of national security.

Palin goes on to say that voters "knew better" because they didn't think this was a time for politics. But, was opposition to the war -- or a disbelief in McCain's viability as a presidential candidate -- due to politics or to an unwillingness to "put our country first"? Palin doesn't offer any evidence to substantiate such claims.

To the contrary, much of the opposition to the war in Iraq was not -- and IS not -- "political" in any negative sense, as Palin implies. Rather, much of the opposition to the war is based on a belief that Iraq is not a country that we should have invaded, or a belief that the benefits of further military involvement in Iraq are not worth the costs, etc. Those beliefs are debatable -- and it is certainly fair for Palin and McCain to challenge them -- but I don't see how they amount to "negative politics".

Along these same lines, we should be wary of the attempt to praise McCain as being someone who "would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war", as if he stands in contrast to other presidential candidates who WOULD rather lose a war than an election. McCain himself has already made this baseless characterization [McCain Says Obama Would "Rather Lose a War in Order To Win a Political Campaign"] once. It shouldn't be made again.


When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too.

Comment: This brief remark doesn't make a clear point.

Palin is disparaging the use of voter profiles and focus groups, though it's not clear why. There's definitely reason to be a bit suspicious of polls and focus groups, etc. But they're not all necessarily bad, either.

In an election for a city council seat in a small town, the number of voters is probably so small that there's no need to resort to a polling firm. In fact, what Palin seems to be saying is that she didn't need to use voter profiles and focus groups in order to gain a familiarity with the voters, because she knew many of them personally. That's fine, but why does it give her cause to disparage the use of voter profiles and focus groups altogether, especially in districts with larger populations where it's not feasible to know all (or even most) of the voters personally?

When running for office, it's sensible to have a good familiarity with the voters. That can be done by knowing them personally, or by using things like voter profiles and focus groups. Depending on the circumstances, some avenues for gaining familiarity work better than others. It's not clear why Palin is being dismissive of the use of voter profiles and focus groups.

Did any of her opponents use voter profiles and focus groups? Has ANYONE running for city council in a small town used them? Who is she contrasting herself to, and on what basis?


Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

Comment: Palin received a great deal of criticism for this remark [NYTimes: The Palin-Whatshisname Ticket, McCain Campaign Fumes Over Paterson's Racism Claim, NYTimes Letter: Sarah Palin's Speech: The Sparks Flew]. But she is raising a legitimate point: if Obama is to be credited with his experience as a community organizer when considering his qualifications for president, then it is fair to credit Palin with her experience as a mayor when considering HER qualifications for president (whose duties, if she were to become vice president, she might have to assume).

And, given that the position of mayor is an elected one that comes with legal powers and responsibilities (akin to what the president wields, though on a much smaller scale), it's fair to suggest that being a mayor is an even greater qualification for the presidency than being a community organizer.

All of this is debatable, of course, but it's far from obvious that Palin was somehow unfairly "mocking" community organizers, as has been alleged. She's raising a legitimate point of comparison regarding qualifications. It's appropriate for her to argue that her experience as the mayor of a small town should not be disparaged if community organizing is going to be treated as a qualification for the presidency.

This is a point that she could have made without the sarcasm, but that is a matter of tone, not substance.


And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion -- I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.

Comment: Palin doesn't give any details to substantiate this claim, that the "Washington elite" (who she doesn't define or provide examples of) are questioning her qualifications merely because she's not in "good standing" with them. If there are people doing this, that's unfair. But the burden of proof is on her to flesh out this accusation and show that it really is happening.

Moreover, even if there are people doing this, she can't simply brush off all criticism of her qualifications merely by saying (even correctly) that there are people with sinister motivations out to get her. To argue that a critic's bad motivations allow us to ignore our their criticism is ad hominem reasoning. After all, sometimes people do the right thing out of bad intentions.


Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people. Politics isn't just a game of clashing parties and competing interests. The right reason is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it.

Comment: Palin is correct that political conflict shouldn't be treated as a game, treated as if it were a sports event. The point of "going to Washington" -- that is, of getting involved in politics -- is indeed, as Palin says, "to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it."

But, just because two people go to Washington with this commitment to better the nation doesn't mean that they won't wind up disagreeing with one another. There's a lot of room for conflict between people who are both dedicated to serving the common good. For one, the two people may disagree on how to define "the common good", on what moral considerations should take priority. For another, even if they agree on moral priorities, they may still have empirical disagreements about what policies will best achieve those moral priorities.

Palin also says people should go to Washington to "challenge the status quo": is that what people in Washington are supposed to do? Is the status quo always wrong? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

Palin's insistence on changing the status quo is on the same shaky ground as Obama's insistence in his OWN acceptance speech that we "cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past" and "not keep grasping at the ideas of the past". Why? The past -- just like the status quo -- can sometimes be right.


I pledge to all Americans that I will carry myself in this spirit as vice president of the United States. This was the spirit that brought me to the governor's office, when I took on the old politics as usual in Juneau ... when I stood up to the special interests, the lobbyists, big oil companies, and the good-ol' boys network.

Comment: Palin is making a condemnation of special interests, which is very common in the political arena. As usual, she doesn't define what counts as a "special interest", or why they are necessarily bad things.


What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger ... take more of your money ... give you more orders from Washington ... and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy ... our opponent is against producing it.

Comment: This is a caricature. Actually, it's several caricatures.

While it may be true that Obama believes that government should provide more services, take in more tax revenue, lay down more regulations, etc., as a means to achieve certain moral goals, it's a caricature to say that Obama treats these means as an end in themselves. It's not as if Obama -- or liberals or Democrats in general -- seek to make government bigger, take more in taxes, etc., regardless of whether or not it improves our lives.

(In fact, Palin's caricature is along the same lines as when conservatives and Republicans are accused of wanting free markets and lower taxes merely as an end in themselves, regardless of whether or not our lives are improved as a result. Both sides have a habit of caricaturing each other mercilessly on matters of government taxing and spending policies.)

Palin's comments about Obama's military and energy policies are also caricatures.

She makes it sound as if Obama -- seeing the world to be dangerous -- says that the solution is for the U.S. to be weaker. Obama may not agree with Palin about what policies make the U.S. stronger, and what policies help the U.S. avoid or minimize dangers, but that doesn't give Palin license to describe Obama as advocating weakness in the face of danger.

On energy, Obama and Palin also disagree about what energy sources are the most productive and cost-effective to invest in with respect to the short-term and the long-term. And those disagreements are reasonable. But, for her to say that Obama is "against producing" more energy is simply a distortion. If she wants to argue that Obama is making bad judgments about what energy sectors are going to provide the U.S. with the energy it needs, fine, she should provide an argument to that effect. But it's unfounded for her to claim that Obama DOESN'T WANT more energy to be produced.

All these distortions serve to demonize Obama.


Victory in Iraq is finally in sight ... he wants to forfeit.

Comment: Palin and Obama disagree on what Iraq policy the U.S. should have. But it's a distortion for her to say that Obama WANTS to forfeit, that he DOESN'T want victory. The truth is that Obama and Palin disagree about whether (and what sort of) victory is really achievable in Iraq. Palin's distortion of this disagreement serves to demonize Obama.


Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?

Comment: Palin is referring to Obama's position on the treatment of terrorists and suspected terrorists (particularly those at Guantanamo Bay), and whether we should recognize them as having legal rights (such as habeas corpus). However, she is caricaturing Obama's position.

Contrary to what Palin says, the concern Obama and others have is that people who are falsely suspected to be terrorists will have no means of proving their innocence if they are not granted some legal rights (for instance, habeas corpus). As a result, we might wind up punishing people who are innocent, treating them as terrorists when they are not. And punishing innocent people is a morally bad outcome.

If Palin wants to argue that we won't wind up punishing innocent people, or that the risks of denying legal rights to suspected terrorists is outweighed by other moral considerations, then she should go ahead and try to make that case. But that doesn't make it acceptable for her to misrepresent Obama's position, and to depict it as not being based on any serious moral considerations whatsoever.

Palin is distorting Obama's position in a way that demonizes him.


Harry Reid, the Majority Leader of the current do-nothing Senate, not long ago summed up his feelings about our nominee. He said, quote, "I can't stand John McCain." Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps no accolade we hear this week is better proof that we've chosen the right man.

Comment: This is clearly flawed reasoning.

Her argument seems to be something along these lines: "Reid has a low opinion of McCain. Reid -- being our opponent -- is wrong a lot (or even always). Therefore, his opinion of McCain is wrong, which must mean McCain is a great candidate."

This sounds like ad hominem reasoning.

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