Bob Herbert Head for the High Road

Sarah Palin is the latest GOP distraction. She’s meant to shift attention away from the real issue of this campaign -- the awful state of the nation after years of Republican rule.


Sarah Palin waves in front of her daughter Bristol and son Trig after being introduced as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. McCain's campaign announced Monday that 17-year-old Bristol is pregnant.
REUTERS

Sarah Palin waves in front of her daughter Bristol and son Trig after being introduced as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate. McCain's campaign announced Monday that 17-year-old Bristol is pregnant.

The Democrats need to be careful about the intensity of their criticism of Sarah Palin.

She may look like an easy target, an appalling lightweight who will send serious voters scurrying to the more substantive Obama-Biden ticket. And the temptation to get on her case probably became greater with Ms. Palin’s disclosure Monday that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

But the Democrats should not push this stuff too far. Ms. Palin is a lot more appealing personally than the often testy guy at the top of her ticket. And the inescapable reality is that there are millions of voters who identify with her, and may be quick to resent attacks that they perceive as bullying or overkill.

Here’s the deal: Palin is the latest G.O.P. distraction. She’s meant to shift attention away from the real issue of this campaign -- the awful state of the nation after eight years of Republican rule. The Republicans are brilliant at distractions. Willie Horton was a distraction. The chatter about gays, guns and God has been a long-running distraction. And we all remember the Swift-boat campaign.

If you want a real issue, forget all of the above and revisit Monday’s front page of The New York Times. Hundreds of families are being forced out of their homes each month in Louisville, Ky., because of mortgage foreclosures. With record numbers of poor and homeless students, the public schools are struggling.

The crisis has only been made worse by fiscal difficulties facing the schools. Higher energy and other costs, combined with a $43 million cut in state aid, have left the school system in a sorry state.

The reason this should be high on the presidential campaign agendas is that the problems in Louisville are widespread. As Sam Dillon of The Times reported: “As 50 million children return to classes across the nation, crippling increases in the price of fuel and food, coupled with the economic downturn, have left schools from California to Florida to Maine cutting costs.”

Even as these districts are cutting back, wrote Mr. Dillon, “the number of poor and homeless children is rising.”

That is the kind of substantive issue the Democrats should be focused on: how to educate America’s children and improve the quality of their lives; how to bring health care to those going without; how to put America back to work.

To their credit, Senators Obama and Biden seem unwilling to jump aboard the bash-Ms.-Palin bandwagon. Both have been exceedingly mild in their comments about the Alaska governor.

Last week’s Democratic convention dramatically illustrated the most effective approach available to the party. The convention built in intensity night by night with featured speakers who focused powerfully on substantive matters.

Bill Clinton may be wildly unpredictable, but last Wednesday he was magnificent, laying out the challenges that will face the next administration.

Listen:

“Our nation is in trouble on two fronts. The American dream is under siege at home, and America’s leadership in the world has been weakened. Middle-class and low-income Americans are hurting -- with incomes declining; job losses, poverty and inequality rising; mortgage foreclosures and credit card debt increasing; health care coverage disappearing; and a very big spike in the cost of food, utilities and gasoline.

“And our position in the world has been weakened by too much unilateralism and too little cooperation, by a perilous dependence on imported oil, by a refusal to lead on global warming, by a growing indebtedness and a dependence on foreign lenders, by a severely burdened military, by a backsliding on global nonproliferation and arms control agreements, and by a failure to consistently use the power of diplomacy, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Central and Eastern Europe.”

Respectful criticism of Sarah Palin is fine. But the great issues of this campaign loom like giant redwoods over the pathetic weeds of politics as usual and the myriad distractions that have turned one presidential election after another into a national embarrassment.

Seventy-two years ago, in his renomination acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia (before more than 100,000 people gathered in Franklin Field), Franklin D. Roosevelt rose above the boiler-plate rhetoric of political speeches and spoke of his generation’s “rendezvous with destiny.”

He warned of the perils to the nation of economic inequality. “Liberty,” he said, “requires opportunity to make a living, a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”

Roosevelt’s words echo across the decades because they resonate with the very meaning of America, a meaning that is so much deeper than what our politics have become. “We are fighting,” he told his audience, “to save a great and precious form of government, for ourselves and for the world.”

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