Will Sarah Palin become the first "reality" VP?

I don’t normally take much of an interest in American politics – pretty much everything I know about the US electoral process I learned from watching The West Wing – but there has been something strangely compelling about this year’s presidential race.

Something more than a little terrifying too.

The acrimonious race for the Democrats’ nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was never less than intriguing, with the candidates seeking to become, respectively, the first female and black president of the US.

And now we have Sarah Palin, who as John McCain’s running mate, is arguably the least qualified person ever to seek a role which requires her to be one heartbeat away from the most powerful office on Earth.

As I said, more than a little terrifying.

Now don’t get me wrong. Unlike the bipartisan American media, I do not pledge allegiance to either the Republican or Democrat camp. Nor do I discount Palin solely on the basis of her gender. (For what it’s worth, I think Hillary Clinton is thoroughly deserving of her status and reputation notwithstanding her gender or who her husband is.)

However, what are we supposed to make of a candidate who has:
– No foreign policy experience, to the extent that she didn’t even know what the Bush Doctrine is (for God’s sake, even I know what it is)
– Demonstrated on several occasions that her grasp of economic policy, past Supreme Court judgments and many of the other basic tools of the political trade verges on the non-existent
– Effectively positioned her candidacy on the basis of being a mom, a moose-hunter and a maverick

In a now notorious interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, this is what Palin had to say, having shot herself in the foot in an earlier interview with ABC in which she had cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as part of her foreign policy experience.

Palin: “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.”

Couric: “Explain to me why that enhances your foreign policy credentials.”

Palin: “Well, it certainly does because our … our next door neighbours are foreign countries. They’re in the state that I am the executive of … We have trade missions back and forth. We … 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 … 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 … to our state.”

Now Palin’s ineptitude and all too obvious lack of knowledge have made her an easy target; a sizeable proportion of the world is literally laughing at her, as exemplified by a series of parodies by Tina Fey – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Palin – on Saturday Night Live. (Check out YouTube for more.)

And her performance in last Thursday’s sole televised vice-presidential debate – which was watched by more Americans than the first McCain/Obama presidential debate – was barely an improvement. The debate was leniently moderated and structured so as to provide both Palin and her opponent Joe Biden with minimal opportunities to insert feet in mouths. But for every solid point she delivered, there was another question which was answered in the vaguest terms, or neatly sidestepped – yes, I know that’s what politicians do, and Biden did plenty of the soft-shoe shuffle too – or simply countered with one of her folksy homespun catchphrases (“Say it ain’t so, Joe”, “Doggone it”) and a wink and a smile.

Many commentators suggested that, because Palin had not made any game-changing gaffes and exceeded very low expectations, that the debate could be viewed as a tie. Oh, puh-lease.

If all that is required of a vice-president is an ability to deliver a well-rehearsed script, then for sure Palin can do that. Call me a bluff old traditionalist, but I would hope that the vice-president of the most powerful nation on the planet was capable of a little more than that. Does that make me odd?

The scariest thing of all is that there is a sizeable proportion of the American population – paid-up members of the NRA, Creationists, rednecks, whatever – who see no problem having Palin as McCain’s designated backup. They are convinced by her attempts to spin her lack of Washington and foreign policy experience into a virtue: she’s an outsider, a maverick, as opposed to someone of utterly unproven ability and essentially zero experience. They are even happy to accept the factual errors, the gaping knowledge gaps, the half-truths and the bare-faced lies – if you don’t believe me, a simple Google search should rapidly convince you otherwise – as the words of a credible candidate.

What we have here is the political equivalent of a reality TV wannabe, a woman of great ambition who would have us believe that memorised scripts, cutesy soundbites and a telegenic array of smiles and winks is in some way a replacement for experience, talent and – heaven forfend – substance. And like your average Big Brother contestant, she has long since exceeded her allotted 15 minutes of fame. It’s time for Americans to, as the Republicans’ slogan so boldly proclaims, put their ‘country first’. Which means choosing the option which has the greater credibility on both the domestic and world stage, in rescuing an ailing economy and in navigating tricky foreign policy waters. Which surely means the Democrats’ ticket of Obama/Biden.

For sure, Sarah Palin looks good on TV: does anyone sane really believe this is enough?

One final thought. In the fictional world of The West Wing, the series ended with the Democrats’ young buck, Matt Santos, defeating the Republicans’ veteran politico, Arnie Vinick, aided in no small part by a game-changing external event (in this case, a near-nuclear disaster) which swung the pendulum decisively towards the Democrats, resulting in the election of the first American president from an ethnic minority.

No doubt you can see where I’m going with this: sometimes, as the saying goes, life imitates art. In this case, I certainly hope it does.