Caroline Kennedy and the Sarah Palin Qualifications Test

The comparison is not apt, but the would-be New York senator must still pass the "Palin test."

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Peter Roff, a Republican strategist, writes today over in the op-ed section about Caroline Kennedy's qualifications for Senate. She is qualified, he argues, because she meets the constitutional criteria.

Peter puts the Kennedy qualification debate in the context of the recent quarrels about Sarah Palin's fitness to serve as vice president. He's not the first person to make this comparison, with conservatives decrying a perceived double -standard that Palin got crucified for lack of qualifications while Kennedy gets a free pass.

Kathleen Parker, a conservative who gained national political attention for noting that Palin was clearly not ready to be vice president, argues, however, that the Kennedy-Palin comparison is apples and oranges: not only is the vice presidency a substantively different office than junior senator from New York, but opposition to Palin was "firmly based on substantive concerns about competence, as well as wariness about her tone and temperament, which became increasingly divisive. Palin's demonstrated lack of basic knowledge, her intellectual incuriosity, her inability to articulate ideas or even simple thoughts all combined to create an impression of not-quite-there."

Parker is correct, of course. But there is something more to the Kennedy-Palin comparison. The would-be senator must still pass what we can call the "Palin test."

In regard to fitness for office, the Palin opposition had two phases: When she was first introduced, critics could legitimately question whether being mayor of Wasilla and a short-term governor of Alaska was sufficient preparation for the presidency (to which she might have to ascend if elected). Conservatives could fairly wonder if her experience was significantly less than that of the Democratic nominee.

The second phase of the debate commenced when Palin finally started doing major media interviews and debated Joe Biden. The fitness-for-office debate then shifted from résumé to reality, and it became painfully clear that even if the Wasilla-Juneau career track could sufficiently prepare one for the presidency, it had failed to do so in the case of Governor Palin.

Say what you want about Barack Obama's paper qualifications, but he had spent years actually thinking through the presidency and preparing for it. John McCain had been doing the same for at least 10 years and Joe Biden for 20. All three demonstrated, as Parker put it, basic knowledge of national issues and articulate, basic ideas about them.

So, the Palin test: to what extent one can, in the crucible of media interviews and/or debates, demonstrate fitness and preparation for office in the face of lingering questions about them. Palin failed, providing confirmation for her critics.

Caroline Kennedy has started the test, embarking, as the New York Times's Nick Confessore and David M. Halbfinger reported Sunday, on a series of interviews aimed at dispelling criticism that she is not ready to be senator and that she remains a mystery to New York voters.

The initial reviews are mixed (not a big problem because with an electorate of one—New York Gov. David Paterson—the Palin test is pass/fail):

. . . She still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined, and seemingly determined to remain that way.

. . .

She provided only the broadest of rationales for her candidacy for the Senate, saying her experience as a mother, author and school fund-raiser, her commitment to public service and her deep political connections had prepared her for the job.

We do know that she is pro-gay marriage (good for her, and I guess she doesn't plan on a near-term presidential run) and anti-school vouchers (wonders never cease). Beyond that, according to the Times, she spoke with some knowledge about education issues (though wouldn't say where she is on merit pay) and "declined to describe her positions on other pressing public issues."

What does this mean? Critics will argue that it is indicative of a Palin-esque lack of grasp of the issues. More likely it's common sense political strategy: She seems favored to get the appointment, so why affirmatively do anything to risk it? It's the political equivalent of running the football with a lead and the clock winding down.

From the Times:

New Yorkers appear to have a favorable view of Ms. Kennedy and fond memories of her family. But they know little about her positions or what has driven her to seek office after years spent mostly avoiding the spotlight.

Why, as a purely practical matter, show more than you have to at this point?