Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kitty and the Pit-Bull: Two Lessons from One Question

I’m going to use one historical incident here to make two very different points.

Michael Dukakis’s ill-fated 1988 presidential run is widely considered to have jumped the shark when he was asked the following question about his wife during his second debate with George H. W. Bush:

"Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

Dukakis answered:

"No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life."

The reply was calm, logical and consistent – and helped cost him the election. Why? Because the American people want a strong leader, and matter-of-factly answering a question about one’s own wife being raped by saying you wouldn’t want the murderer dead made Dukakis look like a wimp.

Fair or not, this is probably a textbook example of how even voters who care very much about issues can turn on a candidate who is just too cerebral and too detached from the emotional aspects of serious matters that impact them. This is something that Barack Obama really needs to pay attention to, because he’s another Democrat who is often considered at times to be overly-intellectual and almost too cool for his own good. The McCain camp is trying to make the election about personalities and likeability rather than issues, and while Obama is right to stick to the issues, he can’t ignore the personality factor either. (I know he knows that. It just makes me feel better to write it down. :) )

I’m not sure what would have been a good answer for Dukakis, but I think this would have at least been better, while still honest:

“I’d want to strangle the killer with my bare hands. But we are a nation of laws, not of men running wild with vengeance, and in the long term I think he’d suffer more being behind bars for 50 years than getting a quick exit.”

Of course, that’s easy for me to say with the benefit of hindsight.


Now, let’s switch gears completely, back to one of my favorite topics of late: Sarah Palin.

There’s just something about the Kitty Dukakis question and Sarah Palin’s right-wing viewpoints that immediately resonated. And so I wondered, what would happen if anyone in the media still had the balls that Bernard Shaw had in 1988, and if that reporter were willing to put Sarah Palin on the spot and force her to acknowledge to the whole nation the extreme nature of her abortion stance. Something like this:

"Governor, if your 13-year-old daughter were raped and became pregnant, would you favor her right to terminate the pregnancy?"

An honest answer to that question would probably go a long way towards breaking the mythical “super-mommy moose-hunter uber-reformer” populist spell that the GOP has successfully cast on both the media and the electorate over the last ten days.

Is it a tough question? You bet. So is being president.

Too personal? No way. If she wants to be able to make Supreme Court appointments, I want, nay demand, that the people of the United States get the chance to learn about her positions – in detail. And the fact that she's a woman doesn't matter.

Sometimes a president needs to deal with tough questions and scenarios. Just like Dukakis did. Just like the tough questions Obama was asked during the primary. If Sarah Palin can’t answer those questions, she should withdraw from this election. If the American people and media can’t ask those questions, they should withdraw in advance any complaints they have about a future President Palin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The idea of the election becoming a personality contest has become a recent fascination of mine. Potentially because both the personality that both McCain and Palin present are that of bullies tossed onto a political reality show.

Though more and more, I believe that's what the McCain campaign is seeking. They've obviously come to the (correct) conclusion that the average American's IQ isn't up to following politics. So it's all razzle and dazzle. It's drama and flash. Did they vote Lieberman or Thompson off the keynote address?!

And the late addition of an attractive, yet whoefully underquallified acctress to shake up the ratings. Talk of her being his political soul mate. A love sublot! Exactly what the story needed.