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A Heartbeat Away

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, October 03, 2008

For all the Republicans' complaints about Gwen Ifill, the moderator's questions were softballs compared to what Sarah Palin faced from Katie Couric. Ifill did not demand that Palin list (OK, how about just name more than one?) Supreme Court decisions. She did not push on the issue of foreign policy experience. She didn't follow up on how it is that Americans who get dropped from the health insurance rolls are supposed to buy a $12,000-a-year health insurance policy for their families with a $5,000 tax credit, or why oil companies deserve more tax breaks, or what part of global warming is not manmade. She didn't even ask the governor whether she really believed that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, which is my favorite Palin-ism.

Ifill didn't have to. Palin did not fall on her face. She did not embarrass herself. It was not the disaster some Republicans feared, with reason, after the Couric interviews. But she is running with a 72-year-old man who has a history of cancer and would only allow a handful of reporters to examine his medical records without making copies.

This election is not about Palin and Joe Biden. Presidential elections are never about vice presidential candidates. If they were, Ed Muskie would have beaten Spiro Agnew, Lloyd Bentsen would have beaten Dan Quayle, and Dick Cheney would still be duck hunting.

But the selection of a vice presidential candidate reflects on the person who made that decision. Questions about the qualifications of No. 2 give you one more reason not to vote for No. 1 if you were heading in that direction.

And for the growing number of Americans who are heading in that direction, Palin's thin resume and barely passing command of the material, her need to answer questions other than those posed by the moderator, and her "what have I been at this, five weeks?" air of inexperience in the league she now finds herself will amount to one more reason to not vote for John McCain.

Going into the debate, 75 percent of all Americans had doubts about whether Palin is ready to be a heartbeat away from the toughest job in the world. My guess is, most of them still do.

It's not Palin's fault. She was not selected on the merits. She was not the best qualified Republican to go up against Biden, any more than Clarence Thomas was the most qualified lawyer in America to serve on the Supreme Court. Mitt Romney would have done a much better job against Biden.

But Palin was not picked because she could help McCain govern, let alone step in for him if needed. She was not picked to balance McCain's foreign policy experience with the same kind of knowledge about the economy. That would have been Romney.

Palin was picked to help McCain win.

At least for a brief moment, Palin was the right answer politically. She was right because she invigorated the conservative base of the party, right because so many women were still smarting about Hillary, right because so many men could not resist the sexist attacks that turned her into a sympathetic street fighter, a much easier role for her than master debater. She was right for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with a collapsing economy and the failure of Republican ideology. She was right then, but she is not right anymore.

I miss seeing Hillary up there. I miss seeing a woman who is the smartest person on the stage, the most experienced, the most articulate. I miss the feeling of sitting back and watching her hit the balls out of the park. Watching Palin makes me miss Hillary even more, not because the governor reminds me of the senator, but precisely because she does not.

I have no doubt that Palin understands where "Joe Six-Pack" is coming from. But does she understand where the country needs to go? McCain needs a miracle. Palin is not that.

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