ABC News anchor Charles Gibson's forthcoming interview with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin—her first since being hoisted onto the ticket by John McCain—will give a national audience an unvarnished look at the candidate. Because Palin is telegenic and the interview will be shot against scenic Alaskan backdrops, the only thing to prevent the interview from turning into sweet Republican syrup will be tough questions from Gibson.
Gibson and his team got knocked by Washington Post columnist Tom Shales as "shoddy," "despicable," and "prosecutorial" after they hosted the April 16 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Although I think the transcript tells a different story, Gibson will surely approach this interview on tip-toe lest he become the story again.
Gibson enters this Q&A at a disadvantage: Palin and her associates know volumes more about Gibson and his interviewing techniques and the questions that he's likely to ask than he knows about her and her positions. She'll have crammed like a Ph.D. candidate preparing for an oral examination, and her expert coaches will have prepared her on how to slip out of questions for which she doesn't have answers.
Gibson will wisely avoid the "gotcha" questions designed to prove that she's an ignoramus because she can't name all the capitals of the now-independent Soviet republics. Likewise, he'll skip the complicated hypotheticals ("If the president of North Korea has a stroke and nobody seems to be in charge and the country appears to have restarted its nuclear program, as president, what do you do?").
Because this is Palin's first interview, her coming-out if you will, Gibson has an obligation to ask questions about the issues thrust into the news by her words and actions. After covering that area, he needs to ask the sort of open-ended questions that will dislodge her from the script the McCainites have prepared. We need to hear her genuine views—which are largely unknown—on a range of issues.
Because the first instincts of a politician are to evade a tough question by dismissing it, filibustering, or answering a question that wasn't asked, Gibson's toughest job will be formulating the follow-up question to block her retreat.
Because the McCain campaign is running against Washington, they've got to run against George W. Bush and the Republican majority that not so long ago held Congress. Gibson needs a question that defines this separation. So he should start by asking:
1) What Bush administration policy do you disagree with most, and what would you have done differently?
She'll praise the president before damning his increased spending. To that answer Gibson should volley:
Then how much smaller would the McCain budget be and where precisely should he cut?
If she tries to vague Gibson out, which she will, he need only restate his request for specifics. It will be like pouring sand into her gears. No Republican president has ever delivered on the promise to shrink the federal government, and no Republican president ever will.
2) How are you like Hillary Clinton?
Palin will flash that million-dollar, time-buying smile. It's a trick question, but it's an honest trick question because it forces her to acknowledge the obvious similarities. Both women are ambitious, underrated, glass-ceiling crackers and family-career jugglers, but Palin will do her best to distance herself from the comparison because it violates her sense of self. In Palin's mind, Clinton is a baby-killer, a socialist, a Washington insider, and a vain pig. She'll evade with gracious words about how she differs from Clinton, but Gibson can guide her toward self-reflection by noting the similarities (ambitious, underrated, cracker, juggler) and daring her to deny them.
Some questions work because they contain a preface that prevents the questioned from escaping. Here's the earmark-pork question Gibson should ask:
3) You're running as a reformer, a crusader against the special interests and politics as usual. Setting aside for a moment Sen. Ted Stevens' legal problems, should Alaska return to the Senate this Republican who has delivered more pork to his state than virtually any other elected official? Yes or no?
Like a good, loyal Republican, she'll resist condemning Stevens and will extol his virtues, perhaps by perhaps by talking about his struggle to make government smaller. After she runs the line out 100 feet or so, Gibson should give it this yank:
But in the past you had no problem with asking Alaskans to vote out a standing Republican. You challenged the incumbent Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, on a pork-slaying, reformist platform and beat him in the primary. Isn't Stevens as antithetical to your views on good government as Murkowski?