- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

OP-ED:

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! Why does everything have to be about Marcia - my inner 70s child chimes over and over, echoing the words of “Jan” the awkward, middle child of the iconic Brady Bunch. John McCain has got to be feeling a little like Jan, who just got her due.

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah! It’s all about Sarah. And like the gorgeous “big sister” everyone loved to hate - so too is the sentiment toward Sarah Palin after a particularly disastrous interview last week with CBS’ Katie Couric. The alarms bells sounded - but went unnoticed amid the economic turmoil - until a restless press began picking up on the dissension within Republican ranks.

I actually noticed what was happening over two weeks ago and said then on CNN, what many are saying now: that the campaign needs to stop overscripting her, stop overcoaching her, and let Mrs. Palin be herself.

But some critics have taken it a bit farther. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker is calling on Mrs. Palin to “bow out” in her column on National Review Online. Not only is that an extreme view, but most certainly sends the worst kind of message. How’s that for strong leadership? When a woman gets a little ruffled during a television interview (or two) - it means she is ill-equipped and we should just kick her to the curb? She may not be a “Hillary Clinton,” as another conservative columnist proclaimed, but that is exactly why so many conservative Republicans and Democrats like her. She is NOT Mrs. Clinton, but more like the neighbor next door who understands everyday America, is smart and strong enough to lead, and not an angry woman with an ax to grind or vendetta to take out against an entire political party.

It is clear, however, that Mrs. Palin is having problems. For one, the McCain campaign needs to let Mrs. Palin admit that foreign policy is not her strength - and stop forcing her to pretend that it is. It doesn’t make her less capable (if that were the case why is Barack Obama still in the race?) and it doesn’t mean she can’t be effective when or if called upon to interact with foreign leaders. She is not Dick Cheney, we know that. She should remind voters that Mr. McCain is the master on foreign policy, he leads on the ticket and that his knowledge (as further cemented in the first debate) will go a long way in straightening her “quick study” learning curve. Also, that she has a record of leadership - executive leadership - and as such has given us a glimpse of how she governs. She should talk about what it takes to lead and how her record as a reformer equips her as vice president, whether the issue is foreign affairs or health care.

That brings me to my second point. Mrs. Palin has conducted numerous solid, informed interviews as governor of Alaska; she can do them as a vice presidential nominee. This is not her first time in “prime time” or on national television. Campaign advisors need to cool their jets and give her breathing room. Voters identify with Mrs. Palin because of who she is - not what the campaign wants her to be. She cannot be all things to all people. Americans don’t want or expect a robotic Barbie doll. They want the call-it-as-I-see-it hockey mom who also exhibits the keen judgment to make important policy decisions as executive leader of a prosperous state.

Having worked with some of these same people, during Bush/Cheney ‘04, who are now coaching Mrs. Palin, the “overhandling” doesn’t surprise me. It is what campaigns do for the sake of message control and it is not always effective for every candidate. Even less so when you have two self-proclaimed “mavericks” on the ticket whose style and individuality make them so compelling. They can’t be kept in a box.

Mrs. Palin should stop letting her advisors boss her around and take a stand. If, as columnist Bill Kristol suggested on Fox News yesterday, Mr. McCain himself has come down hard on his advisors for the way they are “handling” Mrs. Palin - that is a good thing. Acknowledgment is the first step to recovery. She can and must recover.

Recall the reworking of Michelle Obama? Early on, she came off as an off-the-cuff, “not proud of my country” angry black woman. Whether true or not, the Obama campaign knew it had a problem when polling revealed Mrs. Obama’s high negatives. They began to not only limit her ad libbing but tweaked her remarks and speaking engagements, orchestrated interviews such as her visit to the “View” and re-worked her entire appearance to present a softer, more feminine and demure persona. It worked.

While I don’t subscribe to the “all is lost” cries by some of my conservative counterparts for Mrs. Palin, a retooling is certainly in order. Not to the same extent as Mrs. Obama’s, but I agree with the NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, that the campaign needs to “free Sarah Palin.”

This Thursday’s vice presidential debate is an opportunity for the governor to break the chains, reclaim herself and re-introduce the candidate we admired at her introduction. She can rule the day.

Tara Wall is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times. twall@washington times.com.