Ramesh Ponnuru is right that Biden doesn’t seem to understand, or refuses to admit, what Roe v. Wade held, and doesn’t even seem to be able to explain the doctrine of incorporation properly, so it is perfectly right and necessary to hit him on this. It is always useful to be reminded that the man who derided Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas does not understand these things. There is an argument, I suppose, that one would rather have a candidate who reaches the right conclusion, even if she can’t articulate why, than someone who comes to the wrong conclusion and offers a lot of windy, inaccurate justification. However, I’m not sure that it is ultimately very helpful to Palin to make technical critiques of Biden’s dissembling and confusion, just as it never made a lot of sense to defend Palin’s answer on the Bush Doctrine by saying that Charlie Gibson didn’t define it correctly, either. In other words, it is fair to hit Biden and Gibson on their technical errors, but in the very criticism of Biden or Gibson Palin’s partisans are effectively admitting that they are judging her interlocutors’ statements by a standard so much higher than the one they are using for her statements that they are acknowledging that she can’t really compete on the same level.
It would make it more of a fair fight if Palin seemed to know in detail what Roe held and also how it was related to Griswold, which would be possible if she knew that there was a case called Griswold. Yes, it’s good that she thinks the matter should be returned to the states (even though this federalist position is actually extremely unpopular with some pro-lifers), but if she had to make an argument about why Roe was wrongly decided and so should be overturned I’m sorry to say that I don’t think she could persuade anyone. Biden makes a lot of unforced errors and false claims, as he did in his interview with Couric, but he is not going to have an opponent who can exploit that weakness. Another problem is that he can make a wrong answer sound more informed than it is, just as McCain was able to bluster about Pakistan despite being basically wrong in what he said, because for some reason people give him the benefit of the doubt on foreign policy. Likewise, as an old Judiciary Committee Chairman, Biden receives deference from reporters who don’t care or don’t know much about the details of these Court rulings.
It is also true that there is no need to endorse the conclusions of Roe if one acknowledges that there is a right to privacy. The problem is that she gave no indication that she understood that these might be seen to be in conflict or that there is any tension between them. Politically, I’m not sure how satisfactory this will be to legal conservatives and pro-lifers who must be hoping that Palin would be a driving force in shaping McCain judicial appointments, since it seems likely that she will have only as much influence in these matters as she does expertise. Perhaps it is also obvious, but it might be worth noting that if Palin did not have a personal reputation for valuing the sanctity of life her answers on Roe would be seen as red flags for pro-life activists who would regard her references to federalism and a right to privacy as clues that she is lacking in the kind of conviction they want. In Palin’s case, the personal is not only the political, but her personal story seems to have redefined what an acceptable answer on this question is. National Republican candidates are often criticized when they opt for a federalist answer, which seems to many pro-lifers to be a dodge or an unacceptable compromise. The social conservative tribune in the primaries, Huckabee, made a lot of hay out of Fred Thompson’s federalist position, and constantly came back to the plank in the party platform supporting a Human Life Amendment as something that he thought his rivals were abandoning. Whether or not one agrees with Huckabee, he spoke for a large constituency that is not necessarily interested in a federalist solution, but instead wants the practice banned nationally. As most people assume that Palin is familiar with life issues, it can hardly help her reputation that even on this subject she seems less than fully prepared.
Over the last few weeks, I have been watching Palin’s defenders deploying their expertise to make sense of answers by Palin that were wrong, insufficient or embarrassing. When she manifestly knew nothing about the Bush Doctrine, her defenders chimed in that her answer was fine because the precise definition of such a doctrine–if there really is a doctrine or just a jumble of policies–is so intensely disputed. In short, the sheer nuance and complexity of an issue excused her utter cluelessness, or, to put it another way, she knew so little about the subject that she would have no way of knowing that Biden or Gibson erred. When she talked vaguely about Putin rearing his head, there was only a relative handful of people who could have deciphered that she was referring to long-range Russian bomber flights. Even on something like that, where presumably Palin did know something about what she was saying, she could not articulate it. No doubt her claim that she reads “all” newspapers will soon be cited as proof of her voracious appetite for knowledge and her curiosity about the world. What Palin’s defenders are showing is that it takes well-informed, very engaged policy wonks to lend even minimal coherence to her statements. Unfortunately, she will not be able to call on them tonight.
P.S. Speaking of federalism, what would Palin be able to make of Biden’s defense of the constitutionality of VAWA? Could she cite the relevant precedent of U.S. v. Lopez and explain why these federal laws represent an unacceptable encroachment of the federal government into areas that are properly the preserve of state and local governments? Could she explain why the commerce clause does not apply in the case of the gun legislaton thrown out in Lopez or in the case of VAWA? To ask these questions is to answer them, because I think we all know that she could not. I can’t say that gives me much confidence. I was debating these issues in my high school government class; Palin probably does not know that these issues exist. That’s a problem, and the more people try to pretend that it isn’t the worse it is going to get for her and her defenders.
Update: Hilzoy comments on the Court ruling answer:
First, I cannot imagine a conservative watching this video without wincing. I just can’t.
A lot of people have this same reaction and assume that these interviews must be embarrassing most of Palin’s supporters, but what I think Hilzoy and many others are not taking into consideration is the degree to which Palin’s fans simply don’t care and are doing their best to answer her question to Halcro about policy details (“does any of this really matter?”) with a resounding no.
Second Update: Here’s another thought. The question Couric asked was about Court rulings that Palin disagreed with, and we all know that McCain thinks that Boumediene was one of the worst rulings in history and Palin thought it was cute to knock Obama for his opposition to Boumediene by misstating his position in her convention speech. So, here’s a question for the VP debate moderator to ask: “Gov. Palin, you said in your convention speech that Sen. Obama wanted to read terrorists their rights. Why do you say that, and how do you interpret Boumediene v. Bush to have anything to do with reading suspects their rights?” Or maybe keep it simple: “Gov. Palin, does habeas corpus apply in cases concerning suspected terrorists, and do you think the Supreme Court was wrong to grant suspected terrorists due process?”
Third Update: Alex Massie has more.