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No Experience Necessary

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/palinwavecrop-300x200.jpgGov. Palin and Sen. McCain at a rally in Washington, Pa. (Flickr: buddhakiwi)

The astonishing thing about the lack of experience of Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor selected by Sen. John McCain to be his running mate on the GOP ticket, is that no one much seems astonished. Oh sure, there was partisan carping, James Carville and company making the talk-show rounds, mugging about it. There was some serious objection in some serious ranks, even, we are told, from high-ranking Republican Party elders. But in general, what might have been greeted with consternation, derision even, was not. The question is: why not and what does it say about Americans.

After all, this is a woman of scant political resume, mayor of a tiny hamlet, governor—of less than two years—of a sparsely populated state with a lot of money and not too many burdensome problems. This woman would now be, if her ticket won, a small step away from the Oval Office, a step away from tangling with Putin and Ahmadinejad (she has apparently only been out of the country once), not to mention tackling our sagging economy and energy woes and providing a wise sounding board for her sometimes loose canon of a running mate. So why the muted alarm?

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Part of the answer lies in her gender. It is a plus, a coup — especially after the loss of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. McCain and company were only too happy to suggest Palin was the logical heiress to Clinton’s disgruntled voters, those who felt she had been dissed by the media and the Obama folk all through the long primary campaign. McCain would give those disappointed women someone to vote for — a theme echoed by Palin herself every time she speaks. Of course, for the most part, that’s folly, since there are no two more polar opposites than Clinton and Palin.

They come from different planets, the Yale Law School grad and fiercely articulate lifetime public servant on the one hand, the beauty pageant winner and ex-sportscaster-turned governor on the other. If Clinton was the cream of the liberal female baby-boomer crop — make that the elite baby boomer crop — Palin is the poster girl for the next generation of feisty, self-made right-wingers.

No, Palin is not the logical heiress to Clinton’s mantle. She is, in fact, the anti-Hillary. That’s what she’s selling, the dirt under her fingernails, the blue-collar husband, the unwieldy but cherished brood—five kids, one a Down syndrome baby and a grandchild now on the way, offspring of her unwed 17-year-old daughter. She is real goods—that’s the message. Far from being a hindrance, her lack of experience is a plus — as, apparently, is her daughter’s unexpected pregnancy, generating empathetic noises from people left and right.

Never has the anti-experience mantra been more popular. Just ask Clinton. She tried to campaign on her experience and then had to pivot mid-run when it was clear the theme was DOA. Change was in, experience was out. Barack Obama clearly understood this from the get-go. He, too, of course, has relatively little, high-level, hard-core political experience, another part of the reason there wasn’t a fierce kick over Palin’s lack of background and history and expertise.

We are in one of our anti-elite/anti-experience upsurges. That’s largely due to the long discrediting of the professional politicians, the savage internecine partisan attacks and the gleeful pile-on by the media.

It is also due to the economic divisions that have been so exaggerated over the last stretch of years — middle-class people losing their homes and savings, while the rich get richer, the wildly rich richer still. To heck with them, those at the top. Time for the real people to run the joint — people like Palin.

This up-with-real-people theme is being played out right through the culture. The sometimes clumsy are dancing with the stars and chart-topping wannabes are warbling on “American Idol” — while the rest of us vote them up or down. Forget critics, those elite snobs. We don’t need them anymore. We the people are the court of last resort. The Internet is our new domain, our free-for-all, where anyone can opine, no certification needed. No question, Palin is the beneficiary and the perfect American idol for this attitude, this time and place.

There was a telling quote — some might find it a bit disturbing — in my local newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, the other day. A woman was quoted explaining why she wasn’t worried about Palin’s lack of experience. “If you can go up against a teen-aged kid,” she said, “you can go up against a world leader.

Really? That seems a crazy stretch. But that, too, is emblematic of the mood — the idea that if you are good on the homefront, in your private family management, then you will be just fine out there in the big arena.

We have flipped private and public. Just look at our conventions, replete with touchy-feely testaments by husbands and wives as to the conjugal tendernesses and paternal or maternal gifts of the candidates. It’s a bit gooey, a bit mushy, the emphasis on private performance rather than public performance—but that is part and parcel of the new mood.

There has been a little kick-back against Palin for going back to work only three days after her newest son was born — and presumably about having sufficient funds to pay for his care. Harrumph, went some of the mothers of America — feminists, looking to dent Palin’s popularity, certainly among them — more indignant over that fact than over her lack of experience.

But despite the strong feelings of women pro and con Palin, what’s clear is that her candidacy is ultimately less about gender and more about economic class — and the resentments abroad in the land.

Anne Taylor Fleming is a novelist, commentator and essayist for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of a memoir, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.”

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