In lieu of opening Palin to regular questioning from the press corps, of the sort the other three candidates have all undergone many times before, the McCain campaign is helpfully leaking positive appraisals of her studiousness. "Despite the worries, [Palin] struck many campaign officials as more calm and cerebral than expected," reported Newsweek. "She was quick to ask questions, and to 'engage in a back and forth' with briefers." See, the McCain campaign says she's on the ball. That settles it, right?
But, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, this admiring appraisal of the prospective veep's intellect struck a familiar chord. With a quick search, I discovered that, indeed, the same was said of Dan Quayle in 1988. Twenty years ago, The Washington Post reported, "Bush aides, who were getting their first in-depth exposure to Quayle, were impressed by his attention span, the quality of his questions and the facility with which he moved through the agenda."
Other parallels stood out as well. Conservatives received Quayle's selection rapturously. L. Brent Bozell pronounced himself "ecstatic," and Jerry Falwell called the surprise pick "a stroke of genius." After a media frenzy, Quayle's speech was well-received. The convention hall burst into cheers of "We want Dan!" NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said that Quayle executed "flawlessly," and CBS's Bruce Morton called it "a good speech."
Questions about Quayle's readiness remained, but he did his best to turn them into elite condescension toward small town America. Quayle, in his acceptance speech, spoke movingly about the small towns in Indiana where he had grown up, and later disparaged Dukakis for "sneer[ing] at common sense advice, Midwestern advice."
Today, Quayle is remembered as a disaster. But, during the campaign, his supporters believed that media skepticism of Quayle had rallied ordinary Americans to his side. Dukakis "looks down on his fellow Americans. He looks down on Bush and Dan Quayle as--in his word--'pathetic,' " wrote right-wing columnist Michael Novak. "Thus, the 'feeding frenzy' of the press in New Orleans stirred a national backlash. It united all the scorned of America as one."
Conservatives are saying the same things about Palin. "Elite opinion," insisted McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, "looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world." As Palin herself said, "If you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone." To the right, the mere fact that the press questions her fitness proves that she is one of them.
As the original rationales for Palin melt away, this bond has become unshakable. Her lack of qualifications turns out to be her greatest qualification.