ABC's Gibson grilled Palin hard, but it may backfire

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Sept. 12, 2008 at 11:47 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- There were no surprises, no knockout zingers, but also no bloopers Thursday night in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's first TV interview since becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Charles Gibson of ABC News was out for blood and inherently applied a double-standard compared with the kid gloves George Stephanopoulos used on Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois on Sunday night.

Gibson was out to embarrass Palin and expose her presumed ignorance from the word go. By contrast, when Obama referred to his "Muslim faith" on Sunday and did not correct himself, Stephanopoulos rushed in at once to help him and emphasize that the senator had really meant to say his Christian faith.

By contrast, Gibson tried to embarrass Palin by referring to her Christian faith in asking people to pray for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Palin countered by pointing out she was following the precedent set by Abraham Lincoln.

Palin also expressed her support for Georgia and Ukraine joining the U.S.-led NATO alliance. That statement was predictable and consistent with the current policy of the Bush administration. The policy has dangerously raised tensions with Russia, but Palin is hardly alone in the conservative/Republican consensus in expressing her support for it.

Palin's assessment of foreign policy was competent and not embarrassing. Although she initially exhibited ignorance of the Bush Doctrine on pre-emptive strikes that has been a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she recovered quickly and then made the case clearly. Tactically, she made the mistake of trying to be friendly and informal with Gibson, who assumed a superior, professorial and critical stance toward her. She would have been far better going on the attack to rattle him.

The double-standard Gibson applied to Palin, compared with the uncritical media platforms repeatedly offered to Obama, who has had zero executive experience running anything, was especially striking. ABC and Gibson focused on Palin as if she were running right now for the presidency rather than the vice presidency. He and other media pundits, by contrast, have never asked the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, if he has ever had to make a decision on anything.

Gibson's aggressive approach appeared to take Palin by surprise: He was clearly attempting to put her on point by presenting her as having extreme religious views. This again, however, appears to be a double-standard, as Palin grew up in the Assemblies of God, one of the largest Christian denominations in America with 16 million members, and is now a member of the Wasilla Bible Church. Even now, Obama has yet to receive any comparable grilling on his 20-year attendance in the congregation of the notoriously racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The focus on Palin's faith and family, as well as the controversy over Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment in Virginia earlier this week, confirmed the swift demise of civility in the 2008 presidential campaign. This is especially ironic, as both Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, owed their victories over Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York in the Democratic primary race and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the GOP one to their perceived inclusive tolerance, uplift and vision compared with their main opponents.

In the long sweep of U.S. political history, the worst dirt that has been thrown at either of the presidential candidates pales compared with the claims that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child by a black slave in the 1800 campaign -- the newspaper editor who published the accusations eventually was found dead floating in a canal -- or the false claims by Republicans in the 1944 campaign that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was senile. FDR by that point was indeed a dying man, though he did not know it, but he was mentally as sharp as ever.

The context of the increasingly desperate -- and ugly -- attacks on Palin and her alleged lack of experience is that the Obama bandwagon, which swept all before it from the Iowa caucuses through the end of June, is now stalling badly and, even more worrying for the Democrats, the malaise may be spreading to the congressional races.

The latest USA Today/Gallup poll has the Democrats only 3 points up on the Republicans on the question of which party people would vote for today in their congressional district.

Indeed, the Obama campaign is now saying it is ready to take the gloves off against McCain. They rolled out a new ad Friday mocking McCain as out of touch and old-fashioned, even though it was McCain who picked a young woman as a running mate while Obama opted for an old white guy who's been sitting in the Senate for 36 years. With more than 50 days still to go until the actual election, it appears dangerously early in the campaign for the Obama camp to go negative, especially as so much of his appeal has been based on rising above the old negatives to begin with. Isn't it early in the campaign to resort to that? Is it a sign of panic?

Whatever her inexperience and other shortcomings, Palin did not fall into that trap in her ABC interview. At no point did she appear fearful or threatening. Gibson's aggressive questioning on her religion and her son's coming military service in Iraq, by contrast, runs the risks for the Democrats of strengthening support for Palin among working-class, married women, especially those with husbands or sons serving in the military.

The pattern of previous presidential election interviews and debates has always been that individuals who come across as intellectually superior, arrogant and condescending forfeit support that goes to their perceived victims. This dynamic played a crucial role in propelling George W. Bush into the White House eight years ago. It remains to be seen if Gibson's perceived arrogance and condescension will give Palin another boost. It certainly didn't help the Democrats that ABC's chief political correspondent, Stephanopoulos, who had rushed to Obama's aid only four days before, was wheeled on to discuss her interview with Gibson as soon as it was concluded.

Liberal Democrats predictably will cite the interview as evidence that Palin is not prepared for the vice presidency. Republicans will equally predictably cite it as evidence that she is. How centrist voters will react to it remains to be seen. One thing is clear: This isn't a transformational election on either side. Whoever wins, the ugly old cultural and political divisions in America remain -- and they are deeper than ever.

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