Sarah Palin may not know the Bush Doctrine, but she sure sounds like Bush.

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Sept. 12 2008 1:57 PM

George W. Palin

Sarah Palin may not know the Bush Doctrine, but she sure sounds like Bush.

Read Fred Kaplan, Timothy Noah, and Jack Shafer  for more of Slate's take on Sarah Palin's interview with Charles Gibson.

Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.
Sarah Palin and George W. Bush

Sarah Palin's ignorance about the specifics of "the Bush Doctrine" in her first big network interview does not worry me. What's worrisome is her familiarity—and comfort—with Bush's general worldview.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In the pop-quiz question about the Bush Doctrine even Charlie Gibson—who knew, presumably, what was coming—didn't define it correctly. The Bush Doctrine is about preventive military action (Gibson mistakenly used the word pre-emptive), but in its first iteration, it defined those who harbor terrorists as no different from the terrorists themselves. Later, it came to include the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Given the president's selective application of his doctrine and its subsequent revisions, it's quite possible that not even Bush knows what the Bush Doctrine is.

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So it's a little murky. But while Palin may not know what the Bush Doctrine is, she seemed, in her answers, to have adopted his approach to world affairs.

As Bush did, Palin comes to national office with little knowledge about foreign affairs. She hasn't traveled much, and the claims the campaign have made for her foreign-policy experience are evaporating. For example, aides have asserted that because Alaska neighbors Russia, Palin understands Russia. Yet the campaign has never been able to back up this assertion. When Palin was asked about Russia, her strongest response seemed to be that she can see Russia. "They're our next-door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska," she told Gibson.

This is a travel tip, not an argument for foreign-policy expertise. Because a person can see the moon does not make them qualified to be an astronaut.

Palin also seems to share Bush's lack of curiosity. Much of the interview felt like the forceful recitation of talking points she'd only just learned. There was very little evidence of original thought. (Obama has the opposite problem: He has thoughts, but is too calculating to share them.) Some Republicans have compared Palin's directness to Reagan, but that analogy doesn't hold—he'd been working over his ideas for decades before he was on the national ticket.

Finally, like Bush, Palin does not appear to let her unfamiliarity with the material hold her back. She was at pains throughout the interview to demonstrate her decisiveness. This makes political sense: What better way to reassure people about her ability as a leader than to look decisive?

But by repeatedly asserting that she will "not blink," Palin was eerily Bush-like. She offered a black-and-white worldview of bold decisions made quickly and changed reluctantly for fear of showing weakness. Sound familiar?

As a political matter, Republicans will think the Bush Doctrine question was unfair. Since doctrine is like the word paradigm—not often used in daily life—those who make issue of this will be mocked as pasty elites. Democrats, meanwhile, will see Palin's fumble of the question as the perfect encapsulation of their every worry about her.

I'm not sure much changed politically after the first round of the three-part interview. But if the new message of the McCain campaign is that his ticket is a change from George W. Bush, Palin didn't make the case.

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