Standards have been lowered to ridiculously low levels in the United States these days. In the past few years, the most pressing question, we have been told, is with which candidate would you rather have a beer?
So when John McCain picked an obscure, untested governor with an extremely thin resume from the least populated US state per square mile, who's main experience seemed to be having served as mayor of a small suburb of Anchorage, Alaska in addition to being a mother and "hockey mom," he fulfilled the lowest possible standard of competency and leadership which we have unfortunately come to expect in America.
Thursday night's vice-presidential debate did not disappoint. Governor Palin addressed a Nation of Third Graders.
More suit than substance, the Alaska governor repeatedly avoided meaningful detail and substance, spoke in cliches (Joe Beer Can and hookey moms), confused a Civil War general , McClellan (also more suit than substance), with America's current military commander in Afghanistan (McKiernan), and demonstrated no real expertise or command of any particular policy area other than proclaiming herself an "energy expert" because she wants to "drill, baby, drill."
Governor Palin escaped, for the most part, the sort of tortured appearances we have become accustomed to seeing her in on the few solo news interviews that the McCain campaign has permitted.
She greeted Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., her opponent, with a disarmingly broad grin, and asked coquettishly: "Hey, can I call you Joe?"
Physically, Third Graders are busy and active and use both small and large motor skills in activities. Wink, wink. The governor demonstrated plenty of speaking perkiness as is her style while controlling her hand movements which, in her past interview appearances, largely replaced an actual answer. The format of the debate, a formal setting behind traditional lecterns, was not conducive to the governor's active hand gesticulations as so aptly demonstrated in her performances with CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Charlie Gibson.
Emotionally, Third Graders want to be first, they want to be chosen, and they want to win. Here Governor Palin excelled: she is the first Republican female vice-presidential candidate, she loves being chosen as McCain's nominee, and clearly she wants to win. The question of whether or not she and her Republican Party deserve to win, [as the governor put it, another eight years of "hurts" and "challenges,"] is a question adults need to decide (in this case, not for "extra-credit," but to decide the destiny of the nation). Third Graders are becoming more serious about themselves.
Both cognitively and emotionally speaking, it is not clear how highly developed Governor Palin's sense of justice is: more mature Third Graders have a penchant for saying, "That's not fair!" But Governor Palin demonstrated a poorly developed sense of justice on Thursday night: she objected to basic, common sense tax fairness for middle-class and working Americans while seeking adult approval by repeating the false accusation that Barack Obama wants to raise taxes on middle-class Americans and small businesses, saying , "I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle." Third Graders can sometimes be selfish.
Third Graders also have more secrets: Governor Palin and her running mate have quite a few secrets they like to disguise by avoiding any detailed discussion of exactly who would benefit from their tax plan. They talk in generalities of tax credits for health insurance (tax credits, incidentally, are neither tax cuts, nor are they free) without explaining how they would simultaneously start taxing employer provided health benefits. A dirty little Third Grade secret indeed.
Senator Biden, however, has a more highly developed sense of fairness. He mentioned it outright: while Governor Palin questioned tax fairness, Senator Biden noted, "Well Gwen, where I come from, it's called fairness, just simple fairness. The middle class is struggling. The middle class under John McCain's tax proposal, 100 million families, middle class families, households to be precise, they got not a single change, they got not a single break in taxes. No one making less than $250,000 under Barack Obama's plan will see one single penny of their tax raised whether it's their capital gains tax, their income tax, investment tax, any tax. And 95 percent of the people in the United States of America making less than $150,000 will get a tax break. Now, that seems to me to be simple fairness. The economic engine of America is middle class. It's the people listening to this broadcast. When you do well, America does well. Even the wealthy do well. This is not punitive."
Governor Palin also demonstrated a less desirable Third Grade trait; being overly dramatic: "...when you talk about Barack's plan to tax increase affecting only those making $250,000 a year or more, you're forgetting millions of small businesses that are going to fit into that category. So they're going to be the ones paying higher taxes thus resulting in fewer jobs being created and less productivity."
Overall, Governor Palin's appeal to a Nation of Third Graders came off relievingly well compared to her other recent, unstructured activities with adults like Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Structure and direction does wonders for Third Graders.
But the bar is so low that there remains little reason to celebrate or cheer Governor Palin's debate date. For the adults in the room, her affectionate, bubbly, and outgoing giggliness that may appeal to Third Graders, did not help resolve in the adult mind of the voter clarity on policy substance, knowledgeable detail, and leadership qualities. Her ethical sense remains immature: we are good, they are bad. Republicans, other than George W. Bush, are good. Democrats are scary. Her ability to define increasingly complex abstract concepts, like "maverick," or "change" (from what?), is vague.
Some final observations. Third Graders can be overly sensitive, especially to ridicule, failure, or loss of prestige. Governor Palin last night protested: "I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they've just heard." Palin needs to be less sensitive to what media pundits say, and more serious in her answers to simple questions that directly address her experience, knowledge, and leadership qualities, like which United States Supreme Court decisions she would take exception to and what newspapers or magazines she reads. Her complaint that the press is trying to get her demonstrates an unwarranted and unjustified fear when all she really wants is media approval. Well-adjusted Third Graders have fewer and more reasonable fears than worrying that the teacher is asking difficult questions.
Third Graders become more aware of belonging to a group at school, are becoming more aware of themselves, and seek immediate rewards. Governing a nation, especially the one that the next President of the United States and his Vice-President will inherit from George W. Bush, is going to be hard work and will require extraordinary, not ordinary, average, or below average expectations. Third Grade standards are too low. The New York Times, once written on an eighth grade level, has slipped to sixth grade reading. The next administration and the American people can not afford Third Graders running the country.