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Palin Needs More Knowledge to Win

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
Forget about Sarah Palin as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 and probably ever. She may have no interest in seeking the GOP nomination. But if she does, her chances of winning the nomination have been minimized by her decision to resign as governor of Alaska. She's knocked out one of three legs of the presidential stool and a second one is wobbly.

I say this reluctantly because Palin, in my view, is the most exciting Republican figure to emerge in decades. She mesmerizes crowds in a way that no other Republican leader can come close to matching. She has what can't be taught--real charisma.

But personal magnetism is only one of the legs, or underpinnings, for a successful race for the Republican nomination. The other two are experience in office and enough knowledge of foreign and domestic issues to talk about them persuasively. By stepping down, she's cut her experience short: it now consists of a meager two and a half years as governor of a thinly populated state. And, from all appearances, Palin has made little headway on the issue track.

Even a super-abundance of charisma cannot make up for her shortcomings in experience and knowledge. It might be enough if she were running for a lesser office. The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California proves that point. But running for president on charisma alone? I don't think so.

You only have to look at the Republican nominees since World War II to see what's required. Not one of them was anywhere near as lacking in experience and knowledge as Palin is, and that includes the most charismatic of them all, the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

Palin is no Reagan. He was governor of California for two terms, before which he'd been an effective leader in the fight against Communists in the movie industry. Every bit as important, Reagan had read the works of all the great conservative thinkers of the past two centuries. He had imbibed their wisdom. Also, Reagan had been thinking and talking about the political issues that dominated the national agenda and Washington.

Other Republican nominees weren't as towering as Reagan, but they met the three-leg test. Thomas Dewey, in 1948, had been governor of New York. Dwight Eisenhower? His credentials were obvious. Richard Nixon had six years in Congress and eight as vice president before he was nominated in 1960 and again in 1968 and, after fours years in the White House, in 1972.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate. A senator for 12 years, he was leader of the nascent conservative movement and author of a widely read book, The Conscience of a Conservative. In 1976, Gerald Ford had been president for two years when he won the Republican nomination.

Then we got Reagan for two cycles, followed by George H.W. Bush, bubbling with experience (House, United Nations, China, veep) when he was the nominee in 1988 and 1992. Next was Bob Dole, with decades in Congress, in 1996, and George W. Bush, governor of Texas for six years, in 2000 and 2004. Finally, there was John McCain, with nearly 30 years of duty in Washington, in 2008.

These nominees, from Dewey to McCain, not only passed the experience test, but they were also up to speed on national issues and able to discuss them knowledgeably. True, some were better at this than others, but they all reached a minimum threshold of knowledge.

Palin's limitations were evident in the vice presidential debate last year. I thought she won that debate, almost purely on the basis of her personality and likeability. But she could have taken Joe Biden apart while demonstrating her own knowledge and brainpower had she known more about national issues. Biden made numerous erroneous statements, particularly on the Middle East, but Palin didn't know enough to correct him.

I first met Palin in 2007 and talked to her over lunch at the governor's mansion in Juneau. I was impressed. She talked quite ably about energy, taxes, and the environment--issues on the table in Alaska. I wrote a highly favorable story about her. I thought she was a brilliant choice as McCain's vice presidential running mate in 2008.

By itself, two months on the Republican ticket won't propel her to the presidential nomination. But there is a way: win Alaska's lone House seat in 2012 and oust Democratic senator Mark Begich in 2014. A term in the House and another in the Senate--nothing would do more to groom her for the White House than this and transform her into the best Republican candidate for the presidency in, say, 2020, when she'd be 56.
Written by Fred Barnes
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard