A single, persistent question about Sarah Palin has become a major irritant for Republican politicians. And it’s become an even bigger problem for Palin herself.
“Is Sarah Palin qualified to be president?”
Over the past year or so, as speculation of Palin’s presidential ambitions has picked up, that question ISPQTBP, for short has become ubiquitous, and it’s not going anywhere until the day Palin officially declines to run, or if she does run, the day she loses (or wins, we suppose).
That the vast majority of Americans don’t think Palin is qualified — 67 percent, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, including 70 percent of independents — is the root of the issue. Perhaps they’re not impressed with her half-term as governor of one of America’s least populous states, or they’ve been turned off by her partisan personality, reality-TV family drama (and actual reality-TV show), or tendency to stray from the truth on a regular basis. Whatever it is, they don’t think she has what it takes to be the world’s most powerful and important person. To contradict that sentiment by answering that, yes, Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, is to invite people to question your judgment, and perhaps even your sanity.
Nevertheless, Republican politicians wouldn’t dare explicitly dismiss Palin’s presidential fitness either, since she’s still as popular as tax cuts and the Olive Garden within the GOP ranks. (Lisa Murkowski seems to be the rare exception here, but she and Palin have the rapport of particles in the Large Hadron Collider.) While only 47 percent of Republicans think Palin is qualified for the presidency — still a very low number for one of the favorites for the GOP nomination — among strong supporters of the tea party movement, that number rockets to 73 percent. Apart from the qualification question, 80 percent of Republicans just like Palin as a person. Denigrating her qualifications, as the liberal media so often does, risks the ire of the people who determine elections and buy books.
The ability to perform some kind of ISPQTBP dodge, then, has become a vital skill for any prominent Republican. Sure, there are plenty of GOP notables who readily profess unequivocal confidence in Palin’s qualifications, among them, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, Carly Fiorina, Bob McDonnell, and Judd Gregg. But for everyone else, the wisest path forward is a carefully worded response that doesn’t provide a definitive response either way. These evasive answers tend to fall into three general categories.
Strategy No. 1: Just Don’t Even Pretend to Address the Question
This is the most basic form of dodge, an old standby of politicians for any question they don’t want to answer on any topic. With this strategy, Republican politicians either expressly refuse to accept that ISPQTBP is a legitimate question, or they just answer a question that they made up and asked themselves. If they’re lucky, the reporter will be too lazy or time-crunched to ask a follow-up.
Strategy No. 2: Compare Her Experience to That of Barack Obama
By voicing their belief that Palin is equally or even more qualified than Barack Obama when he ran for president, it sure sounds like they’re saying she’s qualified. But all they’re really saying is that she’s as qualified, or more qualified to some unknown degree, than a man they viewed as unqualified. It’s like saying someone is more cuddly than Dick Cheney, which is not necessarily the same as saying he’s past the threshold of “being cuddly.” The lack of an actual dodge isn’t immediately evident here, which makes this the best strategy for anyone more concerned with alienating fellow Republicans.
“The reality is: She’s got a hell of a lot more qualifications than Barack Obama had when he ran for president.”
Strategy No. 3: Confirm That Sarah Palin Is Constitutionally Eligible to Serve as President
Obviously, no interviewer is actually asking whether Palin was born in the United States, will be at least 35 years old in 2012, and has lived in the country for at least fourteen years. Answering as if they were is so blatantly evasive, it’s hard to believe it’ll fool anyone. It’s kind of like a dog whistle to Palin haters, but loud enough for most people to hear. This is the strategy you might use if, like Whitman, you’re running for office in California, or, like Barbour, you might run against Palin for president and you want to undermine her credibility without going the full “no.”
For those who are tasked with performing it, this dance, this tightrope walk, is awkward enough. But for Palin, the repeated airing of the question, and the contortions Republicans put themselves into trying to answer it, make her appear, to an already skeptical electorate, even more unqualified than before. It produces headlines around the country that blare, “Candidate X Won’t Say Sarah Palin Is Qualified for the Presidency,” or “Senator Y Dodges Question About Palin Qualifications,” which only serve to amplify Palin’s already problematic reputation as someone who isn’t prepared for higher office. In the feedback loop, the bad press effects the public’s opinion of Palin’s qualifications, making the question even more difficult to answer in the affirmative, and so on. It’s a daunting phenomenon, but one she’ll have to overcome to have a shot at the White House.