So, as much as I tried not to, I feel compelled to comment on Sarah Palin's recent gaffe in which she referred to North Korea as an "ally" of the United States.
Many of my fellow Republicans with whom I discussed this dismissed it as an innocent and forgiveable mistake. I tend to see it as being somewhat more serious an error than that for two reasons.
First, this is a basic geopolitical fact that anyone with aspirations for the presidency should know by rote. For that matter, anyone who's ever seen an episode of "M*A*S*H" could likely tell you which Korea is our ally. To me, confusing North and South Korea is about as embarrassing as mixing up the combattants in the Civil War.
Second, the media has a long history of trying to portray Republicans as being intellectual lightweights. Think of Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, and - of course - George W. Bush. Palin's intellectual substance had already been a focus of attack by the Democrats and a hostile media, particularly due to her performance during the interview with Katie Couric. Simply put, this gaffe makes it much more difficult if not impossible for her to overcome these negative perceptions.
Someone pointed out to me that Barack Obama's "57 states" remark during the 2008 presidential campaign didn't raise fundamental questions as to his intelligence. That's a good point. So is the fact that Gaffinator Joe Biden's serial dumb comments are quickly forgotten after the news cycle in which they occur. The embarrassing if long-forgotten incident in which Al Gore failed to recognize busts of our founding fathers is another example. But the sad truth is, this double-standard which benefits Democrats isn't likely to change anytime soon. Republicans, especially those who aspire to the presidency, don't have the luxury of saying egregiously dumb things.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford's infamous comment that there was "no Soviet domination" of Poland during his debate with Jimmy Carter might have cost him the election. In the days after the debate, Ford's people clarified that the president merely meant that the United States did not concede Soviet rule of Eastern Europe to be a permanent, unchanging reality. If you go back and re-watch Ford's comment today, far removed from the political context of the moment, I think that is clearly the point he was trying to make. Unfortunately, everyone remembers the gaffe; few remember the justifications that followed it.
I suspect Palin's gaffe, rather than attempts to explain it, will be one of the things that define her as well.