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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, October 05, 2008

How Esenberg burnishes, distorts the truth

by folkbum

I have said before that I do not envy Rick Esenberg. I like him and have enjoyed every conversation we've ever had together. He is a smart guy--I wouldn't want to go up against him when death is on the line, let's say--and an honest conservative. However, he's also the guy the less honest or smart turn to when they need to legitimize their fetishes or polish their turds.

We saw it, for example, with the Gableman-Butler Wisconsin Supreme Court race. No doubt Esenberg agreed more in philosophy with the general lean of Mike Gableman, but Gableman proved to be at best a mediocre jurist and ran a campaign of outright lies and borderline racist attacks on Justice Louis Butler. As the lawyers on the Butler side of the blogosphere showed, repeatedly, Gableman's record and his seeming knowledge of Constitutional issues was wafer-thin against what proved to be Butler's complex and thoughtful record on a wide variety of cases. But law-prof Esenberg polished the Gableman turd week after week, day after day. It was painful to watch from here.

And we're seeing it now with Sarah Palin. In this morning's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Esenberg offers "How Palin reassures, challenges the right," an op-ed that bears little relationship to objective reality. The title of the piece suggests to me, if it is not a serious warning flag to everyone else--that the op-ed is directed at readers on the right and is not intended for moderate-to-left consumption. Even so, what Esenberg is telling his fellow conservatives needs a significant unpacking, and so I offer one here. It is long, but the payoff at the end is worth the reading, trust me--stick around.

He begins simply enough:
If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon candidate, Sarah Palin is the mirrored nominee. As a Democratic friend recently suggested, the Republicans could not have invented a better foil for Barack Obama.
I am not sure who his Democratic friend is, but this suggestion--as I read it and as I understand the definition of foil here--should not reassure anyone, let alone the right. Barack Obama has proved to be the calm, bold, and, dare I say it, presidential candidate in this race. His politics are moderate (as much center as left) and policy proposals are detailed and thoughtful. Obama's risen to the challenge of every situation life has offered him, and he's overcome those challenges with aplomb. If Palin here is his foil, that suggests she's hard-right, an inch-deep, likely to go-off half-cocked, and a relative failure at everything she tries.

As it turns out, that's a fairly accurate description of Palin--but that's not where Esenberg goes with all of this. Let's see some specifics:
Although a good deal of the enthusiasm generated by her nomination was lost in the wake of the financial meltdown and her unimpressive performance in an interview with Katie Couric, her strong showing in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate reinvigorates Palin as a factor in this election and in the future of the Republican party.
I suppose that by the Courickian standard, Palin's performance on Thursday was "strong." By, say, any other objective standard ever devised, her performance was not. Snap polls suggested a solid win from Joe Biden, and further polls have also shown that the debate pushed independents more toward the Democratic ticket than toward McCain-Palin. Neither Palin nor Biden was perfect in that debate, but Palin's performance was embarrassing. When she lacked a real answer on any topic, she pivoted to one of three things: discredited attacks on Obama's character and record; the word "maverick"; or her own supposed "record" on energy. Is the topic health care? Let's talk energy. Is the topic my greatest weakness? Did you know John McCain's a maverick? You want me to answer the questions? Screw you, buddy, I'm gonna talk straight to the 'merican people.
Let’s start with November’s election. For months, Obama has struggled against the criticism that a first-term senator who was, just a few years ago, an unknown and rather undistinguished state legislator is unqualified to be president. To now attack Palin as unqualified is to go after the bottom of the GOP ticket at the expense of the top of the Democratic slate. To draw attention to her lack of foreign policy experience is to underscore the same gap in Obama’s résumé. If she couldn’t guess what Charles Gibson meant (incorrectly, as it turns out) by the Bush doctrine, Obama did not understand that Russia holds a veto on the United Nations Security Council, making the latter a rather poor forum to address the invasion of Georgia.
There is little question that on paper, Obama's resumé is not as extensive as, say Biden's, or even Hillary Clinton's. (Although based on the propaganda launched from the right during the primaries, "experience" was also going to be a prime issue had Clinton won the nomination.) Comparing Obama's experience to Palin's might prove a wash (sure, she held executive office, but how many colleges did she have to transfer to to finally get that degree?), but more important, I think, is how they have applied that experience to their current positions as candidates. Obama has turned his brief career in elected office into the de facto leadership of his party; even four years ago, before he held federal office, he was so widely recognized by the party for his leadership potential that he was offered the keynote at the convention that nominated John Kerry. Four years ago, Sarah Palin was a small-town mayor that no one in Republican Party outside of Alaska had likely ever heard of. She was able to capitalize on Alaskans' distaste with Frank Murkowski--he appointed his daughter to replace him in the Senate!--and a divided opposition including a strong independent candidate to win the governor's race with a plurality, not a majority, of votes. And in the current race, Obama has risen to every standard expected of candidates for national office, while Palin has failed most of them. Even the supposed gaffe Esenberg notes--Obama's suggesting the UN Security Council engage the problem of a Russia-Georgia conflict--is not a gaffe; if it is, then John McCain is guilty of it too:
McCain, a Republican from Arizona, called directly on Russia to "cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from the sovereign Georgian territory." He said the United States should convene an emergency session with the U.N. Security Council "to call on Russia to reverse course" and gather the North Atlantic Council to review Georgia's security and measures NATO should take.
But back to Esenberg's polish of the Palin moose patty:
Is Palin just a tad outré? Can she be labeled a “backwoods hick” whose voice reminds us of Frances McDormand in “Fargo”? We certainly heard some of that in Thursday’s debate. “Oh, yeah,” she said with a smile and a shake of her head, “it’s so obvious I’m a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war.” You betcha. But to dismiss her in this way recalls the suspicion that Obama is a bit of elitist who, notwithstanding his “Grapes of Wrath” rhetoric, looks down with a mixture of sympathy and disdain on those God- and gun-clinging unfortunates who undoubtedly live in subdivisions on wheels.
It's not that she has a grating voice that bothers me. It's that she's playing up the "backwards hick" when she is not, in fact, a backwards hick. We saw Palin at the convention deliver a (pre-scripted, mostly written for someone else) speech read from teleprompters. When she was doing that, she lacked the folksy, hicksy charm. Instead, she was dead serious and her delivery, while Fargo-y, was not peppered with youbetchas and donchanos. She only turned that on during the debate. You can compare the two here yourself.


I guess the question that I keep coming back to when I hear praise for her folksy speaking style, her "joesixpackhockeymom (wink) youbetchas," I can't help but wonder what the pundit world would think were Barack Obama to swap out his standard diction (Esenberg implies this is an element of Obama's "elitist" persona) to drop into something more like the Black English Vernacular and make references familiar to black popular culture. Oh, wait, I don't have to wonder--I can just go back to the harsh criticism Obama took when he let a little Jay-Z into his campaign last April. Some of the local righties even considered that the disqualifying moment of his campaign. When Obama turns on the "black," he gets hit hard. But when Palin turns on the "backwards hick," it is a sign she's not an elitist.

From there, Esenberg directs the rest of the piece to conservatives, though he still manages to mangle some facts:
Apart from the political dynamic, there is a substantive element to the Palin nomination as well with a significance that may well extend beyond November. Her selection sends two distinct messages: one that reassures the traditional Republican base and another that challenges it.

By selecting a staunch social conservative who has reduced both spending and taxes, John McCain signaled that he had no intention of abandoning the conservative movement and remaking the party. [. . .] The Palin nomination also challenged the complacency of a conservative movement that has had a difficult time moving beyond its successes. McCain may not want to remake the party, but he certainly intends to redirect it. Notwithstanding the fact that Palin initially supported an impossibly expensive bridge to connect Ketchikan to its airport, she did, in the end, kill it and directed that a more “fiscally responsible” alternative be found. Although she did not completely abandon Alaska’s requests for earmarked federal money, she substantially reduced them and warned her constituents that the state must push away from the federal trough. This reinforces McCain’s message of reform.
So much wrong in so few paragraphs! Palin may have cut some taxes, as mayor, but she raised others and raised spending by even more, leaving Wasilla, Alaska, in debt to the tune of $3000 per resident--that's not "fiscally responsible." The earmark for the "Bridge to Nowhere" was removed by Congress in 2005, long before Palin was sworn in. She won her race in part by promising to get that money and spend it for the bridge--and only when confronted with the reality that America generally would not tolerate such spending, she spent every single one of the potential bridge dollars on other projects, including on a road to the bridge that is not being built. That's not "fiscally responsible." Palin also pushed through a windfall profits tax on oil companies--something our own governor tried to do and which Rick Esenberg himself said "strikes me as political pandering." I am not sure how Esenberg can reconcile "political pandering" with "fiscally responsible."
But there is more. Palin is not, like Obama, an unreconstructed class warrior. But she, like McCain, takes seriously the obligation to ensure that the benefits of capitalism are widely enjoyed. The free market is the presumptive means to good ends, but not an end in itself. During Thursday’s debate, in response to a question about the financial crisis, she adopted a populist tone, “Darn right it was the predator lenders who tried to talk Americans into thinking that it was smart to buy a $300,000 house if we could only afford a $100,000 house.” While there is far more to the financial meltdown than this, her tone is a departure from doctrinaire laissez-faire economics.
This is my second-favorite paragraph in all of Esenberg's essay, because as I read through the various "live blogs" and reactions to the debate among local conservatives, to a one, almost, they recoiled in horror at this "populist" moment. Owen Robinson, for one, wrote, "Palin hitting corruption on Wall Street again. I hate that." I am not sure how Palin is supposed to be the link between social conservatives (the right-to-life crowd) and fiscal conservatives (the club for growth crowd) when she won't toe both lines.

Esenberg then talks class warfare for a moment, and delivers this:
Concern for those who are less fortunate is essential, but it is not measured by support for the compelled redistribution of income. Government cannot save you. It won’t pay your bills, and its job is not to take from Peter to pay Paul. But it can contribute to a set of circumstances in which Paul can help himself.
And that, my friends, was my favorite paragraph. Why? Because as much as Esenberg may well believe that government shouldn't pay your bills, Sarah Palin does. For what did she do with the results of the windfall profits tax on oil companies I noted earlier? This (my bold):
Alaska collected an estimated $6 billion from the new tax during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. That helped push the state's total oil revenue--from new and existing taxes, as well as royalties--to more than $10 billion, double the amount received last year. [. . .] Some of that new cash will end up in the wallets of Alaska's residents. Palin's administration last week gained legislative approval for a special $1,200 payment to every Alaskan to help cope with gas prices, which are among the highest in the country. That check will come on top of the annual dividend of about $2,000 that each resident could receive this year from an oil-wealth savings account.
Got that? Sarah Palin taxed oil companies and sent Alaskans a check to help pay their bills--exactly what Esenberg suggests Palin challenges conservatives not to do, not to engage in income redistribution or to tell Americans that their government will save you. She robbed Peter, paid Paul, and then bragged that Paul gave her an 80% approval rating.

There is little doubt that John McCain had an uphill battle against Barack Obama. The cards were all stacked against him and the current polls (Obama is over 50% in the composite as I write this, 8.5 points above McCain, much worse for McCain than it was before Palin's debate with Biden) suggest that McCain has but the longest of shots to win. Palin may have re-invigorated the social conservative base that was tepid on McCain in the first place, I'll give you that. But whatever Palin may do for conservatives--and I submit to you that she does not do what Esenberg says she does--she clearly does not do for the American people. If this is the future of conservatism, conservatives will be in the minority for a long, long time.

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