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Framing Sarah Palin

Democrats should stay away from the baby stories. They must resist the urge to comment at all on it. Let the media do the muckraking.
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[Note: I'm not going to get into the Palin baby story, as I personally am waiting to see how it plays out. So if you're looking for that sort of thing, don't bother reading any further.]

Before I get to Sarah Palin, I just have to point something out here first. John McCain is trying to score points off his party's restraint in postponing and toning down their convention out of deference to Hurricane Gustav, but there's a big fat steaming dose of hypocrisy here that the mainstream media is refusing to point out. Here's John McCain last Sunday on Fox News -- "it wouldn't be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster." Chris Wallace asked him about the convention again, and mentioned Katrina. McCain again responded: "I think, again, we don't want to appear in any way festive when you have that kind of tragedy possibly revisiting itself on the city of New Orleans and areas around it."

Now, from the White House website itself, the picture worth 10,000 words which puts this entire "we feel your pain" lie to the ultimate test. Here are George W. Bush and John McCain -- on the exact same day Katrina hit New Orleans -- celebrating what looks to me like the "festive occasion" of John McCain's birthday. Again, this was the day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Please, someone in the mainstream media, please point this out. It's called "journalism."

With that out of the way, we turn to Sarah Palin.

Alaskan Governor (and designated Republican vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin is going to have to answer some questions soon. She is obviously being held (to quote our current Vice President) in "an undisclosed location" every time the press gets near her. Think about it -- John McCain makes the big announcement Friday, and Palin doesn't appear on a single news show Sunday morning? We haven't had a press conference with her yet, or anything other than a few softball interviews. Oh, and it's rumored she's going to be on People magazine soon.

That's all fine and good as far as it goes, but it certainly doesn't go very far. Sooner or later Palin is going to have to stop cramming from briefing books and being given pop quizzes ("Quick: what's the capital of Pakistan?") and is going to have to strut her stuff in front of the national news media.

In a way, she's almost lucky that the baby story broke when it did, because whenever she does step out in front of the microphones, this will be the main thrust of the questions, at least for the first day or so. Sure, it's an embarassing family story, but it is going to detract from the real story the media should be following: Is this women ready to be president?

More to the point, was John McCain's choice of her putting "country first" (as his campaign slogan reads), or was it a hasty selection made because McCain was blocked by his own party from choosing who he really wanted, Joe Lieberman? And how hasty was that selection, anyway? Exactly what sort of vetting process did the McCain team put Sarah Palin through?

Because there are plenty of unanswered questions about her -- and her woefully thin political career -- that really need to be asked.

Democrats have a wonderful chance, because Palin (and McCain's campaign) is stonewalling the press on making her accessible. The Republican plan (no doubt) is to have her introduced to America at the convention, and to frame her and her story in such a positive light that any negatives discovered later won't matter.

Democrats need to get ahead of this curve for once, and start defining her in their own terms. They need to frame her before Republicans get a chance to.

Now, this is admittedly a minefield. She's a woman, and people are already wringing their hands that Joe Biden "is going to have to go easy on her" during the debates, lest he be seen as "beating up on" a woman. This is obviously nonsense (doesn't "equality" mean "actually being treated as an equal"?), but it is a valid media presentation point as far as sympathetic viewer reactions are concerned.

So mostly, Democrats should frame these things as "Why isn't the media asking about..." without getting into the answers themselves. Don't answer the question, in other words, just point out that the question exists and has not been asked.

So here is my advice for framing Sarah Palin.

(1) "I have no comment on the Palin family's personal problems."

(2) "If she's so ready to be Commander-in-Chief, why is she ducking the media? She's supposed to stand up to world leaders and she can't even handle the press?"

(3) "Sarah Palin got her start in politics by supporting a tax increase. Amazing how the Republicans haven't noticed this." (As mayor, Sarah Palin raised sales taxes and lowered property taxes.)

(4) "What exactly is Sarah Palin's relationship to the Alaska Independence Party -- a political party that wants Alaska to secede from the union, and who claims Sarah Palin as one of their own? Is Sarah Palin's motto 'Alaska First' (as the A.I.P. has on their website), or is it John McCain's 'country first'?"

(5a) "Sarah Palin was for the Bridge To Nowhere before she was against it. She campaigned on her support for the bridge to help her get elected governor, in fact."

(5b) "Sarah Palin may have stopped the Bridge To Nowhere, but she took the money anyway. So much for 'being against earmarks' as John McCain likes to claim. If she was against earmarks, she would have refused the money. She didn't."

(5c) "Sarah Palin built a road on the island to the Bridge To Nowhere that had been cancelled -- just so she wouldn't have to give the money back to the federal government. She spent $25 million federal tax dollars on a road to a bridge that isn't going to be built, rather than return it to the taxpayers in the other 49 states. Once again, so much for being 'against earmarks,' as John McCain claimed. Sounds more like 'Alaska first' than 'country first.'" (See the Anchorage Daily News for the whole Bridge To Nowhere saga.)

(6a) "Sarah Palin seems to have learned her personnel ethics from Alberto Gonzales. She has a history of firing people for political reasons -- exactly what got Attorney General Gonzales in so much trouble. While she was mayor, she fired the town's police chief for political reasons. He sued, and the judge had to tell him that by Alaskan law it was legal to be fired for political reasons."

(6b) "Then there was the state Creamery Board that wanted to shut down the unprofitable Matanuska Maid dairy. Palin wanted it kept open. So Palin sacked the entire Board of Agriculture and Conservation and installed her buddies. The new Ag Board then promptly fired the entire Creamery Board, declared itself the Creamery Board, and quickly approved keeping Matanuska Maid open. Later in the year, the dairy failed anyway. Sure shows Palin knows how to handle the entire American economy, doesn't it? It also shows how Palin deals with any political problem -- by firing everyone in sight who doesn't agree with her. And if you can't fire them, fire their boss. Haven't we had enough of that already under Bush and Cheney?"

(6c) "And then, in the scandal that Alaskans have come to know as 'Troopergate,' Sarah Palin is currently under investigation for firing a man who refused to fire the man she really wanted gone, who was her brother-in-law. Kind of reminds you of Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," doesn't it? Or, like I said, the Bush Justice Department."

(7) "If Sarah Palin is such a 'maverick' and takes on her own party, then why was she on the board of a 527 group called 'Ted Stevens Excellence In Public Service, Inc.'? What exactly did she do for Stevens while leading this group? How much money was raised, and from whom exactly? Sounds like until Stevens' scandals broke into the news, they seem to have been pals."

(8) "The more we find out about Sarah Palin, the more you have to wonder how much she was vetted by John McCain. Is this a woman who is the best possible choice to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, or was this some hastily-made and not-very-well-thought-out gimmick to score a few political points? One has to wonder if McCain is really, as he says, putting 'country first' with this pick, or whether it was an impulsive reaction to his own party telling him he couldn't pick the man he wanted. Which, unfortunately, says something about McCain's judgment."

OK, with those out of the way, here are a few cautionary notes. Because there are a few things Democrats should not say when attacking Sarah Palin's credibility.

For instance -- stay away from the baby stories. Resist the urge to comment at all on it. Let the media do the muckraking. Take the high road, instead.

Also, don't mention the whole "beauty queen" thing. Leave this to the late-night comics -- they're better at it, and they don't have to take the heat for doing so. After all, she was awarded Miss Congeniality, and there's a convenient movie of the same name -- so the comics will be all over this one without any help whatsoever.

Likewise, stay away from the whole "small town" angle. Again, leave that to the media and to ordinary people to make up their minds on. It's so patently obvious that not every small-town mayor in America is qualified to be president that you don't even have to point this out. Because even the appearance of attacking "small towns" themselves is going to backfire. Remember Obama's "bitter" comments, if you need any proof. Most voters actually live in small towns -- never forget that.

Don't attack her charisma. In fact, play it up. "Sure Sarah Palin is a wonderful person and has a lot of charisma, but what does she feel about the situation in Georgia? Or Darfur? Or North Korea?"

And DO NOT under any circumstances mention how she looks. This is guaranteed to backfire. Leave all the "hottie" jokes alone. Don't even whisper them. Again, leave it to Leno and Letterman, as they will more than make up for your silence on the subject.

As I said, there is a small window open for Democrats to get ahead of the curve on framing Sarah Palin to the American public. Most of that window is going to be crammed with the baby stories, but eventually the media will tire of that and start looking for a new angle. Be ready with the new angle, and take the high road on the baby situation, and Sarah Palin may go down in history as the worst running mate ever selected.

But be careful as you do. The thing about "throwing a Hail Mary pass" (as John McCain has so obviously done with his running mate selection) is that even though it's a move born out of desperation, even though it is extremely risky, even though it will likely fail... every so often the spectacular catch is made in the endzone, and it turns into a game-winning move. Democrats need to help avoid this, and the earlier they start the better.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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