Preparing Sarah Palin: First, fire all the consultants

It is my view—and the view of smart people I respect—that Sarah Palin is the kind of person that the Republican Party has needed for a long time. It’s not just that she’s intelligent, tough, experienced, accomplished, and has a terrific personal story. What’s most important is that unlike many other talented Republican politicians she seems to hold office for the purpose of accomplishing something rather than for just the pleasure of experiencing a nice public career.

As with any leader, however, Governor Palin will be dependent upon staff—and the first wave of staff that is essential right now has to help brief her on all the myriad issues she must know as a vice presidential candidate.

Palin certainly appears up to the task of learning—now she needs people who are up to the task of teaching. The words mostly used to describe her first outing with ABC News’ Charlie Gibson were “fine” and “okay.” She has to do better—and she can—with the right help.

The John McCain team deserves credit for the performance of the campaign over the past several weeks. Dropping the ball on debate prep, though, could cost them all of their gains and more.

So far McCain himself has done well at his many town hall meetings, at the Saddleback Church, and the Presidential Forum on September 11th. Sarah Palin, unfortunately, hasn’t had two decades to warm up for the big events ahead like her running mate has.

She has to make up a lot of ground—and fast. The good news is that it’s possible with the help of the right kind of people. Palin shouldn’t be handed pages of shallow talking points by political consultants. Instead, she should engage in as many substantive conversations as possible with issue experts.

Campaign consultants are typically unserious about the issues and they treat policy ideas as an unwanted annoyance. The Republican message winds up reflecting this and as a result is weak. It also fails to have any lasting positive impact on public opinion—even after millions of dollars are spent during a campaign.

Even worse, when a Republican is elected with the help of these consultants, the disdain for governing principles carries over and little gets accomplished.

President George W. Bush knew how to win the White House but never learned how to advance a domestic reform agenda. Dennis Hastert held the Speaker’s office for the equivalent of two presidential terms but didn’t even bother trying to sell limited government to the nation.

The same mindset that has left the Republican brand weaker in their wake must not dominate those getting Sarah Palin up to speed for this campaign. Essential to the training are individuals with real issues depth—in the teaching profession this is often called “subject mastery.”

They also must have an understanding of how individuals take in and retain information. Think tanks and other independent conservative institutions are where those kinds of people are found—they’re not found among the ranks of the campaign consultants.

Two weeks in—it’s forgivable that Palin wasn’t quite ready to speak in a manner that represented a deeper understanding about foreign policy. For the next seven weeks, however, she must be able to address the principles that inspire needed reforms in dozens of areas.

Palin is not new to politics or government, so there is a foundation already in place. Now, experienced builders must be brought in to draw the big picture for her and then spend the necessary hours discussing the details. The sooner she gets to the place where she has made the material her own, the sooner she’ll connect with and win over undecided voters.

A person will be conversant only after conversations have taken place. A person will communicate effectively only if she is saturated with the philosophic and historical underpinnings which point to the desired course of action. Rote memorization doesn’t cut it because under sharp questioning the true grasp of the subject matter comes to the fore.

A growing number of observers are becoming vocal about the fact that President George W. Bush has been ill-served by his high level staff. While the buck stops at the desk in the Oval Office, the same can’t be said about a first term governor thrust into a national campaign. The responsibility for insuring that Sarah Palin is ready to answer variations of the most important questions facing the nation falls at the feet of John McCain’s senior advisers.

If you’ve ever met a new military recruit after they leave boot camp it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that that soldier is instead a long serving veteran. The poise and confidence that comes from having been put through the paces is also possible in politics. When you’ve got an able soldier like Palin, the key is the quality of the training and the quality of the trainers.

Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a talent worthy of a first rate briefing team. John McCain deserves all the credit for choosing her. Now he must give her the tools she needs to help the ticket win.

©2008 John Francis Biver

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