Defending Sarah Palin: Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg on McCain’s V.P. Pick As Culture-War Hand Grenade

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Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. For our inaugural conversation, we bring together Ross Douthat, a senior editor at The Atlantic and author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, and Jonah Goldberg, the founding editor of National Review Online and a columnist for the L.A. Times and USA Today. Douthat will return tomorrow morning.

R.D.: Hi Jonah! We're both here at the GOP convention, where Sarah Palin is the name on everyone's lips … and you're an Alaskan by marriage, so I expect you to have incredible, insider insights on the subject.

J.G.: Hey Ross. Yes, it's true. My lovely wife is from Fairbanks, used to work for Frank Murkowski, and has taught me how to skin a caribou. As for insights about Palin, we both saw her speak last month in Juneau, and she and my wife chatted mostly about basketball (they played against each other in high school). What struck Jessica far more than me was how different Palin is from typical Alaskan politicians. I thought she sounded like a good but fairly typical conservative on economics. My wife explained that Alaskan pols don't talk like typical conservatives on economics. They're Republican welfare-staters. It was all very impressive.

J.G.: I think everyone should travel with an Alaskan to translate for them.

R.D.: I think Alaskan interpreters are going to be much in demand this fall!

J.G.: Anyway, what do you think about her?

R.D.: Well, you and I have both confessed to be pulling hard for Palin to succeed, and nothing that's happened in the past two days — up to and including the revelations about her daughter's pregnancy — have changed that for me. But rooting interests aside, I've gone from being wildly stoked about the pick to wondering if John McCain has taken one of my favorite rising GOP stars and brought her out onto the national stage four or eight years too early.

J.G.: Yeah, the stories — or stories with hints in them — about the fact/allegation she really wasn't vetted at all are troubling. I doubt they'll find much bad about her, but it could reflect terribly on McCain (and not unjustifiably).

R.D.: One thing at least is clear to me, that wasn't when I was watching Palin from afar, and thinking that she seemed like a politician worth keeping an eye on, is that she and her family are a culture-war hand grenade like nothing we've seen in a long time.

J.G.: As for Palin, I suspect she'll come out of this a star no matter what.

R.D.: I suspect she'll come out of this a star with the right-wing grassroots, no question. But the political promise of Sarah Palin was that she represented a potential bridge between movement conservatism and the American middle — and particularly the kind of working-class swing voters that I've spent so much time writing about recently.

J.G.: I agree with the culture-war thing entirely. I think presidential contests are first and foremost cultural contests. The battle for the presidency, for good or ill, has become the central front in the culture war. For instance, Bush hatred and Clinton hatred are complex phenomena, but the hatred has a lot more to do with cultural assumptions than the nitty-gritty of public policy. President Bush was much more liberal than his left-wing enemies could ever concede, and Clinton was much more conservative than the right was ever able to admit when he was in office. For the respective haters, Bush was a boobish cowboy, Clinton that d*mn hippy.

R.D.: I still think [Palin] might be [a bridge]. But there's a fine line between coming across as a working-class heroine, juggling career and family, living out her religious convictions, etc. etc. … and coming across as a reality-TV-style carnival act.

J.G.: Yeah, fair enough. But purely on the tactical level I think we're in a very brief eye-of-the-storm moment. If Palin introduces herself well Wednesday night, it could swamp the carnival-act image

R.D.: It's true — the speech will offer a self-branding moment that might overshadow the attempts, from the left and also from the mainstream media, to define her primarily through the various mini-scandals that have been percolating over the past couple of days.

J.G.: Back to the culture-war thing for two seconds: I think Palin reinforces a weakness John McCain had but few identified. The flinty warrior thing puts McCain on the right and Right side of the culture war. But his politics were surprisingly fuzzy on cultural issues generally. Picking Palin roots him on the right side of the culture war and I think generally the American people are culturally conservative when it comes to the presidency. They may — or may not — like liberal policies, but they think the president should have a certain cultural gravitas, for want of a better word (which is why southern Democrats are the only ones who seem to win).

R.D.: And culture-war issues, from abortion to guns to, well, Jeremiah Wright, are a place where Barack Obama is intensely vulnerable … and where McCain, who's uncomfortable with the terrain, hasn't actually attempted to make much hay. The whole "celebrity" line of attack has been played as a culture-war skirmish, but really it's a foreign-policy skirmish — part of an attempt to brand Obama as unprepared for the realities of wartime and world affairs. So Palin represents an opportunity for McCain to open a new line of attack …

J.G.: When I first heard Palin got the nod, one of my first reactions was: They're going after Obama on abortion. I'm not as sure now. But if the contrast is between his born-alive/infanticide extremism and her pro-life "extremism," I think Palin wins.

R.D.: That would be my assumption too — again, unless the reality-TV aspect of Palin's family life (Desperate Evangelicals, tonight at eleven) ends up swamping the media narrative. I'm just curious in general to see how a pro-life female politician plays on the national stage.

J.G.: So what do you think of the coverage?

R.D.: I think the mainstream-media coverage — from cable to the newspapers — has been more or less what I would have expected: You have an unknown politician with an unusual background bursting onto the national stage, and it isn't a surprise that the personal aspects of Palin's persona have taken center stage. I think the biggest problem with the mainstream coverage has been the oft-stated assumption that Palin's daughter's pregnancy is going to cost her social-conservative support … I think it displays an incredibly blinkered understanding of social conservatives in general, and especially how American evangelicalism has evolved over the past few decades. Sarah Palin is going to be a folk heroine to religious conservatives for years to come, regardless of how her candidacy plays out. As for the online coverage — the blogs and message boards and so on — I think it's been astonishing in its hysteria, its conspiracy-mongering, etc. There's been a real down-the-rabbit-hole quality to a lot of what's been written.

J.G.: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. You know this stuff better than I do, but it seems to me the reason the left screws up religion — politically speaking — is they are constantly fighting with straw men and hobgoblins.

R.D.: I think social conservatives are intensely, intensely realistic, in many ways, about sex and parenting and that whole nest of issues … Their idealism about abortion coexists — as it would have to! — with an abiding awareness of human fallibility, of the realities of teen and twentysomething sex, etc.

J.G.: Though I should add that the lecturing disguised as reporting on abstinence programs and the like is annoying to say the least. As for the online thing, I think the best sign of real panic among online Obama supporters was their bowel-stewing hysteria over the last few days, starting with your colleague Andrew Sullivan. I think Andrew has violated nearly everything he's ever claimed to believe in in terms of sexual freedom, privacy, etc. This is a guy who said everyone should lay off Gary Condit in a murder investigation! More generally, I think they've set a trap for themselves by arguing everything is fair game. That's a standard that will ultimately be more harmful to Obama than McCain.

R.D.: I would add that a lot of the coverage on liberal blogs — and wherever Andrew is located these days — has had a polarizing effect on ME. My default political posture tends to be squishy … I'm the conservative who's always talking about how conservatives should be more self-critical, should listen more to liberals, should treat politics as less of a blood sport, etc. But reading, say, Daily Kos diarists dilate about the horror that is Sarah Palin has made me want to mount the barricades in her defense.

J.G.: For example, there's this disgusting — and amazingly stupid — attempt to make Palin a "Nazi sympathizer" because she wore a Buchanan button when Buchanan visited Juneau once (she was in reality a Forbes backer). This sort of stupidity from Wexler and the Obama campaign only further legitimizes guilt by association. But Obama has some REAL guilt-by-association problems with Ayers and Wright. I await Keith Olbermann's explanation of why he routinely chats on air with a man the Obama campaign considers a Nazi sympathizer.

R.D.: Yeah … I've been inclined to think that Obama's Bill Ayers connection is something that conservatives should leave alone; any politician is going to come in contact with extremists if he's working in his party's grassroots, and I have limited interest in guilt-by-association politics. But if Sarah Palin's decade-old flirtation with the Alaskan Independence Party is fair game, then Ayers CERTAINLY is. And hello, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

J.G.: For the record, I think you're wrong about Ayers. If McCain had the exact same political relationship with an abortion-clinic bomber, his career would have been over years ago. I think Ayers is entirely fair game, so long as people stick to the facts and don't overstate the case.

R.D.: Well, that's as good a place as any to end. Thanks for chatting, Jonah — and we'll both be watching her speech with our hearts in our throats, I suspect …

J.G.: Yeah, this was fun. I'm still cautiously ecstatic, or ecstatically cautious … or something.

R.D.: I'm more cautious than you, I think … but I'm hoping for ecstasy tomorrow night. Over and out.

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