The Palin choice-5: To close the age and health gap?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Another possibility for the Palin choice is that perhaps she was selected to close the age and health gap between the McCain and Obama tickets.

There is no question that the Obama campaign just oozes energy (despite Joe Biden), while John McCain does not. McCain was born even before Obama’s mother was, and it shows. Whenever Obama and McCain are shown together, McCain comes out looking the worse.

Obama projects the kind of youthful vigor that Americans like to see in public figures ever since TV started playing a big role in the 1960 election and kept their presidents constantly in the public eye. John Kennedy is the model for this (he carefully hid his serious health problems from the public) and it is no accident that George W. Bush spends a lot of time being seen hacking away at brush and riding bikes. These are deliberate image creating events, to show people that their leaders are fit and energetic.

These age and health concerns about McCain have so far been flying under the radar and mostly raised by comedians and cartoonists portraying McCain as a cranky old man. No one wants to be accused of ageism and only humorists can get away with raising this touchy subject. The Obama campaign has studiously avoided any direct mention of age, perhaps because it would be in poor taste and also might cause a backlash among the large percentage of voters who are elderly.

But lingering, low-level concerns about this issue undoubtedly exist. Polls have long shown that voters find McCain’s advanced age (72) a bigger concern than Obama’s ethnicity, and his multiple bouts with melanoma are well known. Reagan having Alzheimer’s disease during the latter stages of his presidency have also raised concerns about electing the oldest first-term president ever.

So was Palin picked to compensate for this perceived age and energy deficit?

If so, it might have had the opposite effect. One consequence of the Palin pick is that the issue of age and health of McCain have now moved front and center, as people will undoubtedly start taking into consideration the odds that she will be asked to assume the presidency in the event of McCain becoming incapacitated. People are now consulting actuarial tables to figure out what are the chances that she will have to take over at some point. The age concerns have gone mainstream

Furthermore, being constantly seen next to the very young-looking and vibrant Palin is undoubtedly going to make McCain look really old, like he is her father or even her grandfather. For all these reasons, I had expected McCain to pick someone in their fifties or sixties, old enough to not make McCain look bad by comparison but young enough to appear dynamic. Palin went completely against that expectation.

While choosing a fresh face unknown to the nation does have some advantages, I have written before of the dangers involved in putting a novice onto the national stage. Another problem is that although Palin seems bright and able, she simply hasn’t had the time to get up to speed on many issues.

Furthermore, she would not have as yet mastered the skill of seasoned politicians in being able to distinguish between those questions that call for a response that has been carefully scripted to be ‘on message’ and cater to targeted constituencies, and those which are outside the predictable and for which you have to learn the art of the ‘non-response response’, where you speak in bland generalities without really addressing the question. They also know how to filibuster, running out the clock by talking about extraneous issues without pausing and allowing the questioner time for follow-ups.

Really good politicians know how to subtly modify both classes of answers so that the answers seem fresh and not robotic. Furthermore, their families need to learn that they should be seen and not heard or when pressed, give similar non-answer answers. To engage with their questioners in a thoughtful way is to be avoided because it runs the risk of committing a ‘gaffe’. Even the more seasoned Obama sometimes makes the ‘mistake’ of trying think a question through rather than giving a formulaic answer. It is a sad reflection on the state of politics that treating voters as intelligent is a bad thing politically.

The media love to focus on gaffes because they make news, are easy to understand and report, and don’t require the hard work of analyzing policy positions. As a result, politicians make it a priority to avoid making any verbal missteps, even trivial ones. But even seasoned politicians can occasionally trip up and make the kinds of gaffes that the media will focus on, whether it is trivial or important. It is inevitable that Sarah Palin, simply because of the lack of time to prepare and however much a quick study she might be, will make some.

James Fallows, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, predicts that we are going to see her and the McCain campaign plagued with having to explain away one gaffe after another. One campaign operative even made the extraordinary assertion that she may only give set speeches and never take questions. The McCain campaign, by hiding her away from questions for so long has set the bar so low that even a marginal performance will be seen as effective.

I personally do not think she will make many gaffes because most journalists are drearily predictable, sticking to a very narrow range of questions and policy perspectives, and this makes it easy to prepare responses in advance. Her first interview is with ABC’s Charles Gibson, who was identified by Glenn Greenwald back in May as a reliable water-carrier for Republican talking points, which probably explains why he got the interview.

This absurd media obsession with gaffes has arisen because we seem to expect our leaders to be able to immediately spit out answers to any and every question. But even for a president, very, very, few issues require a snap judgment, and those that do are usually fairly trivial. How ridiculous the situation has become can be seen by the fact that no politician can now say in answer to a question, “That is something that I will need to think about, gain more information, and consult with experts before I reach a conclusion”, even though that would reveal a deliberate and mature thinker.

But McCain seems to think that making quick decisions is a good thing and takes pride in it, as if it were a competition.

“I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can,” Mr. McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, “Worth the Fighting For.” “Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.”

This adds further evidence to his reputation for recklessness.

The problem is that if he becomes president, he is not the one who has to live with the consequences of his hasty mistakes. We do.

POST SCRIPT: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Over the weekend, the government took a major step in bailing out these two mortgage giants, the latest development in the continuing mortgage crisis.

Economist Michael Hudson explains what happened and why

The next president is going to inherit a major headache caused by rampant, unchecked greed in the mortgage sector.

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