On Wednesday night, Sarah Palin attacked the “Sputnik moment” line from President Obama’s second State of the Union address.
That was another one of those WTF moments, when he so often repeated this Sputnik moment that he would aspire Americans to celebrate. And he needs to remember that what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that race to space, yes, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.
In her rant, Palin wildly misconstrued the president’s argument, which was not about emulating the Soviets in the 1950s but instead about the Americans who responded to early Soviet success in space exploration by educating themselves and out-innovating the Soviets. Did she listen to the speech? Alexandra Petri has more on this here.
But let’s pretend that wasn’t Obama’s point. The Soviets didn’t have an empire-draining debt problem until some 30 years after Sputnik passed over America. And when they did, it was in large part a result of massive overinvestment in heavy industry, which supported Soviet military pretensions. None of this is to argue that the Soviet economy is anything we should emulate. But let’s at least get the basic facts right when we criticize it.
It’s a fair guess that Palin thought she was borrowing her “insight” from the mythology of Ronald Reagan, who massively increased America’s spending to spur the sort of competitive expenditure that contributed to the ballooning of Soviet debt in the 1980s. According to many conservatives, this was a — if not the — crucial factor that catalyzed the Soviet collapse.
But in claiming that the Soviets incurred their consequential debts long before Reagan was president, Palin ends up arguing that the Gipper wasn’t nearly that responsible for the USSR spending itself to death. If a reverence for Reagan’s anti-Soviet spending inspired her narrative in the first place, then this is incoherent. If she’s just making this all up, then she’s really also claiming that the Reagan-brought-down-the-USSR narrative is overstated.
Palin appears to be lazily checking a lot of Fox News boxes. She wants to criticize Obama’s State of the Union address, so she grabs hold of the Sputnik line. She wants to make a point about debt, so she invents a history in which the USSR had a debt crisis decades before this inference could have made much sense. Even better — her argument sounds like an implicit vindication of Reagan, but that really just makes it either self-contradictory or hostile to Reagan’s legacy.
Even worse, it seems that Palin planned her rhetorical disaster, as she goes on to discuss the “Spudnut Shop,” a bakery in Washington State that’s succeeding without government support. Yet more evidence that her judgment in both what she says and who she has vetting it is pathetic. It’s not even cleverly manipulative. It’s just dreck.