Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, October 03, 2008

Say it ain't so, Joe. The lady is a fence turtle.

Sarah Palin's name can lead to a lot of word play. One word that sounds the same is "paling", which means the sticks (pales) to make a picket fence. Another meaning is to lose colour and we can go down an obvious racial line that suggests a certain outcome if Governor Palin is opposing Senator Obama. But just hold the picket fence idea for today.

Well, we had another night of debates in the US, this time by the vice presidential candidates, and this time enjoyed too in the company of Thursday limers with Uncle R and Auntie L. A shout out for the sushi, shark and bake, and wine.

I wont pretend that I found much of the debate content really riveting (see transcript); many of my fellow viewers voted with their snores. Yet, it was a fascinating contrast on display. In the past weeks we had been led to believe that Governor Palin was "gaffable"; an almost total "ditz"--not too smart; more than a bit folksy in her spoken manner (saying "Darnit" a lot) ; trying to sound ordinary by talking about "Joe Six Pack", and hockey moms; out of her depth on any of the serious issues that we expect to hear top politicians talk on about. But, she had shown that she could learn a script, though unfortunately could not do more than recite the words ("She's a nauseating puppet", my wife said in her text message from St. Kitts last night), and sometimes not in the right order. What was she saying by the repetition of the "all of the above" approach? Was this something on the brief that she needed to read to find out that there were some substantive arguments to make? Did she under that she asked for widening the constitutional role of the vice president? Maybe her wink at the camera was an ominous warning.

Her opponent, Senator Biden, had a long political reputation (a senator since the age of 30), and was known to be knowledgeable, especially on matters of foreign policy. But, he had a reputation for his "loose lips" and "shoot from the hip" comments. I guess he would call himself a maverick. He had some obvious weak spots such as saying earlier in the campaign that Barack Obama was not ready to be commander in chief. In that, he represented some of the slippery side of Washington's politics.

The low expectations of Gov. Palin that had been cemented in our minds meant that unless she fell over, or uttered utter rubbish, many would think that she did well. She stumbled early: "It is a crisis. It's a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that's affecting Wall Street." Other way round, dear, or maybe a profound insight.

She stuck to her brief, so much so that she often spoke about things that were not asked, or asked herself a question and answered that. The moderator, Gwen Ifill, was possibly a bit off balance after the recent contentions that she could be less than impartial given her pending book about the rise of, and change in, black politicians, including Sen. Obama. Ms. Ifill, rarely followed up or steered Gov. Palin back to the topic, and allowed "Our Sarah" to tell us what an expert she was on energy topics, or talk about tax reform. Sen. Biden tried to leave her alone and focused on the "top of the ticket", Sen. McCain, which he did effectively. He did, however, manage to match Gov. Palin on the folksiness and being one of the ordinary Americans, citing often his "Main Street" roots in the Pennsylvania steel-making belt, around Scranton (his home town), or Wilmington, Delaware (the state he now represents). (It's ironic that Scranton is the county seat of Lackawanna County. "Like, I wanna job"?)

But, no doubt about it: Gov. Palin is different, and she showed it often as she tried to be herself. I can understand that for many American citizens she represents a person with whom they can connect. She loves to seem ordinary, and takes swipes at "those folks in Washington". In her own way, she may remind people of the hero in the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: a small town person who comes into fortune, heads to the big city and eventually finds a way to turn his fortune and the system into a means of helping out ordinary farmers, fighting off cynical "experts" along the way. That film was set in the Great Depression, so the parallels may ring loudly as the US is supposedly on the brink of a financial crisis that could rival that period.

But you have to admire the single-mindedness of Gov. Palin. No matter what the question, she turned it back to her answers, and the two pillars of almost all her replies were "energy" and "tax reductions". Ms. Ifill asked about a bankruptcy bill; Gov. Palin gave a cursory reply then came back with "I think that this is important to come back to, with that energy policy plan..." She spoke with energy, on energy issues, on energy plans, on renewable energy, about energy-producing states, about energy independence, and on and on. But there was very little substance to the answers. Sen. Biden, trying not to crush the woman's corns too badly just said at one point "If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution." He tried to give figures, facts, and some arguments that sounded like a policy or a plan.

Gov. Palin taxed our ears with mention of tax cuts and tax reform whenever "energy" did not fit:

IFILL: Governor, please if you want to respond to what he said about Sen. McCain's comments about health care?

PALIN: I would like to respond about the tax increases. We can speak in agreement here that darn right we need tax relief for Americans so that jobs can be created here. Now, Barack Obama and Sen. Biden also voted for the largest tax increases in U.S. history.

I admired Sen. Biden for not blinking doe-like in the same fashion as Katie Couric, but it was a hard thing not to do. Staying with the reported strategy, he did not focus much on Gov. Palin, but on the Bush-McCain nexus, including a nicely aimed kick at Vice President Cheney, whom he said "has been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history". He pointed out that he had not heard anything that sounded like policy or at least different policy from the past eight years of the Bush Administration, a la McCain's use of "you don't understand" jibe: "I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different on Iran than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush's. I haven't heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush's."

One interesting tactic Sen. Biden adopted was to NOT agree with Gov. Palin when she responded to Ms. Ifill's question "Has this administration's policy been an abject failure?" by saying" "No, I do not believe that it has been....There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration...He [McCain] knows to learn from the mistakes and blunders we have seen in the war in Iraq, especially." That was dancing a fine line of saying no and yes in the same breath, and I think Sen. Biden said to himself that most people would focus on "blunder" and agree that enough already.

What I saw also were clear attempts to connect to ordinary people. These two candidates are really reluctant heroes in not choosing to run for the highest offices, but were plucked onto the wagon to give each side something that was missing and would hopefully seal enough votes for the presidential candidates. Sen. Palin has her simple family story and told it often. Gov. Biden too has a simple family story, even though he now has a better life than with which he began. He tried to demolish several distinctions in one set of recollections:

"Look, I understand what it's like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it's like as a parent to wonder what it's like if your kid's going to make it.

I understand what it's like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, "I've got to leave, champ, because there's no jobs here. I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we'll bring you down."

I understand what it's like. I'm much better off than almost all Americans now. I get a good salary with the United States Senate. I live in a beautiful house that's my total investment that I have. So I -- I am much better off now.

But the notion that somehow, because I'm a man, I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure is going to -- is going to make it -- I understand."

That said that he was not really much different from Gov. Palin as far as many Americans should see. When he choked on recalling these difficulties of his own life it was notable that Gov. Palin did not offer a word of common sympathy or acknowledgement but came back with: "People aren't looking for more of the same. They are looking for change. And John McCain has been the consummate maverick in the Senate over all these years." That for me was more telling than the rest of the debate. Gov. Palin had been too coached to respond to anything that was being said to her and her pat answer says volumes about what is really at work.

There's a joke doing the rounds. Gov. Palin has been called a "fence turtle", based on a remark an old rancher made to explain what it means if you see a turtle sitting on a fence post: "You know she didn't get up there by herself, she doesn't belong up there, and she doesn't know what to do while she's up there, and you just wonder what kind of dummy put her up there to begin with."


Anonymous said...

Governor Sarah Palin is all about Cliff Notes and index cards.She is intellectually hollow and vacuous!!ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I am assuming because of the topic being discussed that I heard you on Brasstacks last week. I am only guessing since I was just passing and heard Hoyos say Dennis and I heard the British accent. LOL. I have not been here in ages since I am really caught up in the US election. Imagine that. Now I decide to check in on you and see that you involve in that too. LOL. First time I have ever taken a more than passing interest in the USA. It is an education.