The Palin Debate, Continued: Mindless--or Priceless--Populism?

Last month, atheist author Sam Harris and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson duked it outon this blog over the question of whether Sarah Palin is prepared for the presidency. Now, in the latest dead-tree NEWSWEEK, editor Jon Meacham and former Bush guru Karl Rovetackle a related question: What's the value of Palin's populism? I've excerpted the key parts of their essays below. Click through for the full read--and weigh in on the comments board.

Photos: (from left) J. Scott Applewhite / AP; Khue Bui for Newsweek

MEACHAMA key argument for Palin, in essence, is this: Washington and Wall Street are serving their own interests rather than those of the broad whole of the country, and the moment requires a vice president who will, Cincinnatus-like, help a new president come to the rescue. The problem with the argument is that Cincinnatus knew things. Palin sometimes seems an odd combination of Chauncey Gardiner from "Being There" and Marge from "Fargo." Is this an elitist point of view? Perhaps, though it seems only reasonable and patriotic to hold candidates for high office to high standards. Elitism in this sense is not about educational or class credentials, not about where you went to school or whether you use "summer" as a verb. It is, rather, about the pursuit of excellence no matter where you started out in life. Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton were born to ordinary families, but they spent their lives doing extraordinary things, demonstrating an interest in, and a curiosity about, the world around them. This is much less evident in Palin's case...

We have had terrific presidents and vice presidents from humble backgrounds, and we have had terrible presidents and vice presidents from privileged ones. The unease with Palin is not class-based. It is empirically based. She is a rising political star, a young woman—she is only 44—who has done extraordinary things. It takes guts to offer oneself for election, and to serve. It is far easier to throw spitballs from the stands than it is to seek and hold office. She is a governor, and she has the courage to go into the arena. For that she should be honored and respected. If she were seeking a Senate seat, or being nominated for a cabinet post—secretary of energy, say, or interior—the conversation about her would be totally different. But she is not seeking a Senate seat, nor is she being nominated for a cabinet post, and so it is only prudent to ask whether she is in fact someone who should be president of the United States in the event of disaster. She may be ready in a year or two, but disaster does not coordinate its calendar with ours. Would we muddle through if Palin were to become president? Yes, we would, but it is worth asking whether we should have to.

ROVE: With respect, Jon misses the principal arguments for Sarah Palin. She is the governor of a state with an $11 billion operating budget, a $1.7 billion capital budget and nearly 29,000 employees; she's got more executive experience than any candidate for president or vice president this year. In Alaska she took on the state political establishment, the incumbent Republican governor and the oil companies. She's a rising star who accentuates John McCain's maverick strengths and a "hockey mom" who has developed a powerful tie to ordinary voters. That link isn't itself an argument for Palin. But being able to connect with, and inspire, the public is an asset —not a liability. As for Jon's argument against "everyday Americans" as political leaders, many great presidents have been more average than elitist. Ronald Reagan, from Eureka College, was a far better leader than Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton. Wilson would have given you 100 Supreme Court opinions he disagreed with, whether you wanted to listen or not. Barack Obama has also introduced Joe Biden
as a Joe Six-Pack, saying, "His family didn't have much money … sometimes moving in with the in-laws or working weekends to make ends meet." Biden himself rarely misses a chance to say, "I was an Irish Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who, like many of yours in tough economic times, fell on hard times." Both veep candidates are trying to portray themselves as ordinary folks.

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