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Palin the Debater

I’m watching, as I type, the C-SPAN tape of a 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate. Aside from needing toothpicks to prop my eyelids open because I have never in my life witnessed anything quite this tedious — and I have seen several Robert Wilson operas — I am reminded of one interesting thing about governors.

To be a governor, even to be interested in being a governor, is by definition to be a policy wonk. The job is nothing but policy. The fun of the job is policy.

That is not true of legislators at all levels. Despite the clear bias, over decades, on the part of the Washington press for senators and (to a lesser extent) House members on the matter of experience and knowledge of the workings of government, it is far easier for those officials to coast on the strength of their staff members and their flesh-pressing, fundraising talents.

But governors grapple daily with the most tedious innards of governmental action. I’ve never met one, and I’ve met several, who didn’t have an overpowering command of the details of the state budget, the peculiarities of the relation between the state and Washington, and the demands of satisfying constituents by delivering services and dealing with public-sector unions that want to deliver fewer services for more money.

This is one of the reasons why governors have done so well, in the modern era, as presidential candidates, even if they lose (four of the last five presidents have been governors). It’s not just that they can claim to have run something; it’s because, in the early going especially, they know how to impress people with their ease in dealing with policy matters.

Another reason why it is foolish to presume Palin will do worse in debate than Biden; he’s had a safe Senate seat for decades, whereas she debated in tough circumstances in 2006 and performed so well that she won as an underdog. Even as the topics are boring me senseless, I can see from this C-SPAN footage how comfortable Palin is discussing complicated issues that cut across ideological and partisan lines.


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