We've all been in that situation. You cram hard for an exam, trying to anticipate every possible question. And when the professor asks something you aren't prepared to answer, your stomach drops, the blood rushes from your face, your mind starts racing, and you try not to panic.
That must have been what was going through Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's brain when ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson, with his benign, professorial air, asked her, "Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?"
Blink, blink. "In what respect, Charlie?" Palin replied, looking as if she'd never heard the term.
"The Bush -- well, what do you interpret it to be?" said Gibson, stopping himself lest he give the game away.
"His worldview?" Palin said, obviously fishing for clues.
"No, the Bush Doctrine," Gibson prompted impatiently, "enunciated in September 2002, before the Iraq war."
That's when something clicked, and Palin clearly decided to reach for some rehearsed remarks about the president.
"I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation," she said, then shifted to comments intended to distance the McCain campaign from Bush.
"There have been blunders along the way, though," she continued. "There have been
mistakes made. And with new leadership -- and that's the beauty of
American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership
comes opportunity to do things better."
Professor Gibson didn't give up, and proceeded to lecture the woman vying to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
"The Bush Doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense," Gibson informed the candidate, continuing, "That we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?"
Setting aside Palin's obvious lack of knowledge here, her answer was interesting, because she inadvertently reverted to longstanding U.S. policy, pre-Bush Doctrine: "Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country," she said. "In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend." An eminently sensible answer.
Of course, the whole point of the Bush Doctrine was to lay the ideological groundwork for the Iraq war, which was not a preemptive strike but a preventative strike. The United States would act against threats before they were imminent. Once a threat was imminent, Bush officials argued, it was already too late. We couldn't let the smoking gun become a mushroom cloud, after all.
Then Gibson tried to get specific. Did Palin approve of U.S. troops making cross-border attacks into Pakistan?
To which Palin responded: "In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America and our allies, we must do whatever it takes, and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and who we target."
He tried to move her off her talking points, protesting that she had lost him in a "blizzard of words." Yes or no, Ms. Palin?
She didn't bite. "I believe that America has to exercise all options in order to stop the terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying America and our allies," Ms. Palin said. "We have got to have all options out there on the table."
It's hard to get a sense from the text alone of just how lost Palin looked tonight. Watch the video here to get the full effect. Time to hit the books some more, Sarah.