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.