While John McCain and his aides have railed against the “liberal mainstream media” in recent weeks, some of the most searing attacks against the Republican presidential nominee have come from conservative intellectuals.
McCain’s surprise vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and his sharp reactions to the continuing economic storm have led several prominent columnists on the right to slam the Arizona senator as more reckless than bold, more strident than forceful.
Those opinion leaders, in turn, have triggered a backlash from other commentators, who have dubbed the critics elitists and risen to the defense of a woman they see as the Republican Party’s new populist star.
The spirited debate may have reached its apogee last week, with George F. Will issuing McCain a harsh dressing-down.
“Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high,” Will began his syndicated column, which is carried in more than 450 newspapers. “It is not Barack Obama.”
The conservative elder accused McCain of “characteristically substituting vehemence for coherence” and of attacking his Democratic rival as a big spender, rather than mounting a philosophical challenge to the largest government bailout of business in American history.
Will mocked the Republican standard-bearer as a veritable Queen of Hearts (a la “Alice in Wonderland”) for demanding the head of Christopher Cox, a former Republican congressman who is chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist argued that such impulsiveness sows doubts about McCain’s ability to apply “calm reflection and clear principles” to important decisions. He ended his broadside by all but declaring McCain unfit for the Oval Office.
“It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency,” Will wrote. “It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?”
The dismay expressed by Will and other columnists, including David Brooks of the New York Times, who at times is a McCain cheerleader, arises primarily over McCain’s selection of Palin.
After the 2000 presidential race, Brooks acknowledged that he was even “more worshipful” of McCain than a generally enamored press corps. But in this election cycle, he acknowledged admiration for Obama, before souring somewhat.
He added his voice this month to the chorus of those concerned about Palin’s inexperience.
Palin, Brooks argued, “has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.”
Brooks, a former senior editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote that eight years of “inept” governance by Bush has helped persuade him of the ineffectiveness of a president who makes decisions on gut and instinct.
Writing in the National Review on Friday, Kathleen Parker expressed a similar view but with much less restraint. She said Palin’s recent television interviews amounted to content-light “filibusters.” The syndicated columnist suggested that the governor -- “Who Is Clearly Out of Her League” -- should quit the Republican ticket to “save McCain, her party, and the country she loves.”
Voters typically focus almost exclusively on the presidential candidates, and even weak vice presidential nominees seldom drag down a national ticket.
But David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, is among conservatives who have worried that the Palin pick weakens one of McCain’s best arguments: that he has superior experience and is better prepared to protect America.
“How serious can [McCain] be,” Frum wrote even before Palin appeared at the GOP convention, “if he would place such a neophyte second in line to the presidency?”
Charles Krauthammer and Ross Douthat, two other conservative stalwarts, have also doubted Palin’s readiness to lead.
But others in the conservative movement have dismissed the anti-Palin sentiment as elitism, arguing that presidents like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were also underestimated because they had modest educational backgrounds.
Stephen F. Hayward took up that argument last week in the Weekly Standard, arguing that the Founding Fathers had envisioned “regular citizens” rising to leadership, in part because they possessed a “self-knowledge” and core beliefs that made them natural leaders.
“Part of what bothers the establishment about Palin is her seeming insouciance toward public office,” wrote Hayward, who is a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“Her success with voters, and in national office, would be an affront and a reproach to establishment self-importance.”
Laura Ingraham previously contended that some Republicans who had abundant experience before taking the White House -- Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush -- ended up with troubled presidencies.
The radio and television personality recently chastised Brooks and the other “elitists,” writing that “the people (taken as a whole) are often wiser and more prudent than the elites.”
Ingraham said it was too soon to assess Palin’s political skills but called her the “most promising” populist figure in the Republican Party since Reagan.