Democratic strategists have been temporarily caught off guard by the surprise selection of Sarah Palin. The Western right-wing populism of which she is an example is an extremely varied and highly idiosyncratic political ideology and strategists both inside and outside the Obama-Biden campaign are requiring additional time to fully understand her particular constellation of views.
No matter what additional information and analysis may appear in the next 5-10 days, however, one likely conclusion will be that no single message or master narrative will be effective as a response. Rather, the Democratic response to Palin will need to be disseminated as a series of highly targeted messages specifically designed for particular audiences.
The four facts below provide the foundation for a series of 6 targeted messages.
1. That McCain rejected Mitt Romney in order to pick Palin
2. That Rush Limbaugh energetically promoted Palin’s candidacy and Ralph Reed, James Dobson and Richard Viguerie all consider her one of their own. A number of articles suggest that the desire to satisfy this group played a very significant role in McCain’s decision to choose her.
3. That Palin has extremely limited experience.
4. That Palin has a history of pressuring and firing political opponents. This is not just in relation to a single case regarding a particular State Trooper, but in other cases as well when she was mayor of her small town.
Using this information, the following targeted messages can be developed.
1. Target Audience: Republican businessmen
Theme: “Palin – An irresponsible choice”
Narrative: Any 79 year old CEO of a major multinational corporation who appointed a successor who lacked any international experience at all would be judged by most businessmen to have acted in a terribly irresponsible way and possibly even be liable to legal action. McCain’s selection of Palin is actually a great deal more irresponsible and represents a profound and deeply disturbing failure of good judgment and thoughtful decision-making.
2. Target Audience: politically literate moderates and independents attracted to McCain by his past reputation for independence from the Republican “party line”.
Theme: “McCain to Moderates: Screw You”
Narrative: McCain’s final choice between Romney and Palin represented a clear choice between a relatively moderate, successful governor and businessman on the one hand and the candidate backed by both the religious right and the secular Rush Limbaugh right on the other.
If McCain’s fundamental political strategy were actually to win by earning the support of political moderates, then Romney was self-evidently the preferable candidate. McCain’s choice of Palin, in contrast, provides him with movement conservative foot soldiers for Election Day but represents a fundamental and irrevocable decision to ally his campaign with cultural conservatives rather than political moderates.
3. Target Audience: “good government” voters who were appalled by Bush appointees like Harriet Miers and Monica Goodling
3. Theme: “Sarah Palin is John McCain’s version of Harriet Miers and Monica Goodling all in one”
Narrative: Sarah Palin resembles both Harriet Miers and Monica Goodling — Miers, because she was entirely unprepared for the post offered her and was primarily chosen for her presumed appeal to the Christian right; Monica Goodling because, like Palin, she conducted purges against political opponents.
4. Target Audience: Latinos and other immigrant groups
Theme: Latinos Beware – John McCain’s new friends would like to see you in hand-cuffs
Narrative: The embrace of McCain’s candidacy by the “movement” conservatives poses a major threat to Latinos and other immigrants. “Movement” conservatives include a substantial number of advocates of a national policy that would elevate the increasingly frequent raids, “round-ups” and deportations of illegal aliens that have been occurring around the country in the last year into an organized and permanent, large-scale and nationwide “round-up” campaign.
5. Target Audience: The media
Theme: Palin is not an “ordinary hockey mom” – she is a full-time career woman with a 4 month old special needs child
Narrative: Whenever the press describes Palin as simultaneously an “ordinary hockey mom” who reflects very traditional values in her personal life and a also as a full-time career public servant who is fully prepared to meet the demands of the vice-presidency, they are presenting characterizations that are mutually incompatible. There are, in fact, a very substantial number of traditionalists – particularly among the religiously devout – who strongly disapprove of Palin’s decision not to stay at home with the newborn child. This concern is particularly notable in the discussions on many Christian web sites.
If the press is going to use the phrase “ordinary hockey mom” to describe Palin and to assert that she embodies traditional values in her personal life, the press has an obligation to also note that a very substantial number of traditionalists disapprove of her decision to accept McCain’s invitation to join his campaign rather than to remain at home with her very young child. Omitting this information significantly biases the coverage in Palin’s favor.
6. Target Audience: All voters
Theme: “McCain – So desperate to win he has lost his moral compass”
Narrative: McCain’s choice of Palin provides additional evidence for the theme stated above and which is outlined in the article “How to Attack John McCain – What Rove Would Do.
Update — Message number 5 has been completely overtaken by events. When I wrote it – on Saturday – it appeared that the media was going to blindly swallow the one-dimentional “good ole’ Davy Crockett goes to congress, musket and bowie knife in hand” picture that her PR team developed. Now that that narrative has become hopelessly muddled, the commenters are entirely right that its not what Democrats need to be challenging her on. My current view is entirely congruent with Ed’s.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
Message number 5 has been completely overtaken by events. When I wrote it – on Saturday – it appeared that the media was going to blindly swallow the one-dimentional “good ole’ Davy Crockett goes to congress, musket and bowie knife in hand” picture that her PR team developed. Now that that narrative has become hopelessly muddled, the commenters are entirely right that its not what Democrats need to be challenging her on. My current view is entirely congruent with Ed’s.
Points 3 and 5 both risk trafficking in sexism. Gaerity and ding are right. The focus shouldn’t be on anything connected to Palin as a mother – too risky and too gender-specific (who gets criticized for making bad choices as a father) – and the comparison to Goodling and Miers isn’t entirely fair -after all, Palin is an elected governor, not a hack political appointee. To avoid playing into sexism, criticisms of Palin’s experience could be accompanied by mentions of qualified Republican women – along the lines of Barbara Boxer’s criticism that mentioned Hutchison and Snowe.
I think the ‘hockey mom’ message to the media is a mistake.
Yes, it seems to be the easiest narrative they can handle at the moment (see the NY Times front page with both the McCain vetting snafu article and yet another Mommy Wars piece) but it just opens the door to problematic, sexist discussions of gender roles and such – more identity politics instead of focusing on McCain’s mythical maverick status and how this Palin pick is emblematic of the gap between what he says and what he does.
Going after Palin via any part of her personal narrative is a trap – it’s just too attractive for a lot of people to get sexist, which’ll alienate women voters (no matter who they are), and I don’t see what it gets us. It doesn’t put McCain on the defensive at all, which is where he needs to be; in fact, it encourages McCain to hold up a mirror and call us on hypocrisy – we say we’re for working moms but only *certain* working moms. We say we support people making choices that work for their individual families but only *our kind* of families. Not good.
I say keep the focus on McCain. If his psychological profile depends on the image of himself as lone ranger, principled dissenter or straight-shooting sheriff saving the town, then poking dramatic holes in that image is fruitful – and allows an attack on Palin without relying on problematic sexist themes.
Let’s recast that narrative: McCain isn’t the principled, Gary Cooper-ish sheriff saving the town. Rather, he’s the sheriff in the pocket of the evil rancher (Karl Rove/The radical Christian Right/George W. Bush) who wants to destroy the town for a railroad and Palin is pawn of the evil rancher to keep the compromised sheriff in check.
While I understand that Gov. Palin seems vulnerable in the areas you mention, I believe that the only viable approach is # 2. Joe Trippi really nailed the significance of McCain’s pick in a post on his web site (www.joetrippi.com) called “Don’t LOL: Palin Pick is About Taking on Washington, Not Gender.” Going after Palin’s experience/competence or her decisions about her family will not get traction and have the high potential of badly backfiring. Calling her a “bimbo” (as some have in other comments) is just childish, and, frankly, unfair; as a former corporate executive and now a stay-at-home dad, I have enormous respect for a woman who can balance a large family and a full-time career.
Until we know more about Gov. Palin, the only attack should be that she is more conservative than John McCain, and that her views are extreme. I completely agree that McCain said “screw you” to voters who hold moderate views on abortion, education and gun control. That the conservative base of the Republican Party is thrilled by Palin should be a strong warning to any who worry about future Supreme Court nominees and the precarious state of science education.
There’s a lot of ammo right there. We Democrats need to learn to learn how to choose the right weapon, take precise aim and pull the trigger at the right moment. (Perhaps more experience with firearms would help…).
Sarah Palin was an inspired choice — for the Democrats. Up until now, McCain’s entire strategy has been to make the campaign “all about Obama” — Obama’s fitness to lead, Obama’s “elitism”, Obama’s ambition and lack of patriotism (“Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election”), Obama’s “dangerous” liberalism. At one stroke, that strategy has been reversed. Now it’s all about Palin — Palin’s ethics investigation, Palin’s relationship with Big Oil, Palin’s support for teaching creationism in public schools, and Palin’s unpopularity in her home state. And most of this isn’t coming from the Obama campaign but from two presumably knowledgeable sources –the Alaskan press and non-religious Republicans. McCain supporters have mounted a spirited defense, praising Palin to the skies (quite literally, in some cases). But, as Paul Begala correctly noted, it’s not about answering McCain’s attacks, it’s about forcing McCain to respond to Obama’s attacks. By making the McCain play defense, Palin really has been a game-changer.