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?
The McCain campaign believes that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia has given Palin standing as a foreign policy maven, or something akin. For the purposes of his interview, Gibson could accept this as a given in his preface and ask:
4) Unique among all U.S. governors, you lead a state that shares a border with Russia, a sometimes hostile nation with a nuclear arsenal and new geopolitical ambitions. Given that, how do you evaluate Vladimir Putin?
This untethered question evaporates upon being asked: Palin will respond with generalities from the "trust but verify" stockpile. Gibson's duty will be to wrap her answer in barbed wire and toss it back to her:
That's not very specific, governor. It's the sort of response I might get from the governor of Iowa. Can you share any special insight about Russia and Putin that you've gleaned from your years in office?
The vice president can't be the voice of loyal opposition to the president. She is always his slave, so on the campaign trail Palin will have to recant her previously stated view that global warming is not caused by man and accept McCain's view that it is. Politicians should feel free to change their views, if only because the process by which they change their views informs how they will govern. (Tim Russert used to cruise these waters every Sunday.) Gibson should force her to expand on how her mind was changed by asking:
5) Do you still disagree with John McCain's position that global warming is caused by man? If you've changed your mind in the last couple of weeks, please tell me why you changed your mind and when that happened.
She'll try to filibuster about the need for a vigorous debate on the issue, but Gibson is enough of a pro to make her fold and admit that she has surrendered to McCain's position. This follow-up will expose her as a socialist greenie:
Do you favor McCain's advocacy of a carbon-emission cap-and-trade system to stem climate change?If you've changed your mind in the last couple of weeks, please tell me why you changed your mind and when that happened.
Here's another issue that will require genuflection on Palin's part and force her to show how and why she changes her mind. She supports drilling in ANWR. McCain does not. Gibson should ask:
6) On the campaign trail or as vice president, will you try to persuade Mr. McCain to adopt your position on drilling in ANWR? Or have you adopted his?
Some questions must be asked simply because they're on everybody's mind. Just because the candidate will have a well-rehearsed answer shouldn't disqualify it. So, let's hear Gibson ask:
7) Were you for the bridge to nowhere before you were against it?
She can't shrug off the question or joke her way out of this one. If she's smart—and I think she is—she'll call it the biggest mistake of her political career and one from which she's learned many valuable lessons. Gibson's follow-up should explore the libertarian socialist paradise that Alaska has become and ask her if she intends to block it from the federal trough. Make her give a number for Alaska's fair take, Charlie.
Every candidate hates the press, but no smart candidate vents on the topic without thinking through the consequences. Palin scalded the press in her acceptance speech, saying she wasn't seeking the "good opinion" of Washington "reporters and commentators." The comment may presage a campaign against the press, or it could have been just a populist wisecrack. Gibson could open the topic with this softball:
8) For most in the nation, you're an unknown quantity. What questions should the press be asking you?
She'll probably throw down platitudes about the glories of the First Amendment and salute the newspaper reporters in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau who have kept government accountable. Blah, blah, blah. If she doesn't become unhinged, Gibson should invite her to with this follow-up:
What questions are out of bounds?
Will she protest the coverage of Bristol Palin's pregnancy, the nature of Trig Palin's birth, the investigation of her role in the firing of her state trooper brother-in-law? Will she draw a circle around her nuclear family that she forbids the press to enter, or will she acknowledge that she has already made every member of her clan a McCain-Palin campaign appendage and that it's too late to complain? If she's smart—and I think she is—she'll laugh and say that the testing only made her family stronger and better prepared for the future. As cheerful as can be, she'll say, I wish that the news about Bristol's pregnancy could have been released on our family's time table, not that of the press that was asking whether Trig was my baby. But that's all passed. I'm as used to sharp-elbow politics as I am to sharp-elbow basketball, so I hold no grudge against anybody, not even the nasty anonymous bloggers.
If she goes this direction, you can be sure that the McCain campaign will urge the press to consider no question out of bounds for the Obama-Biden ticket.
As a foreign policy novice, Palin deserves an open-ended question like this about what she knew before McCain picked her and what she's learned since:
9) What have you learned about foreign policy from John McCain since joining the ticket?
She'll ably recite chapter and verse from the McCain manual. Gibson's goal here shouldn't be to force a fumble but to see how far she'll carry the ball when given a field that stretches a thousand yards before her. Will she have a beginning, a middle, and an end questioning her answer? Will it reveal her a foreign policy prodigy or a dope whose understanding is miles wide and nano-inches deep. Gibson should resist asking a follow-up and just smile and nod his lunkhead nod that says, Tell me more. Can she fill dead air? Can she resist it?
Finally, Palin is the sort of politician for whom the personal is the political. She's already reaped political rewards from the deployment of her son, a soldier, to Iraq, so Gibson has every right to personalize her views by asking:
10) Your son is being sent to Iraq. What is he fighting for?
John McCain says we're on the road to victory in Iraq. How do you define victory? What exactly have we won?
Bonus questions for Gibson: What rights do suspected terrorists have? And if Gibson is up to it, this one: On Sept. 2, you and your husband issued a statement about Bristol Palin's pregnancy stating that you were "proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents."Was it Bristol's independent decision to have her baby? Would you have blocked her from getting an abortion if that had been her decision?
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