Strange to say, tonight the Republican National Convention will reach its halfway point. And although Republicans, like the city of New Orleans, may have narrowly avoided calamity from Hurricane Gustav, they’ve already lost the opportunity to match the carefully staged and rolled-out show Democrats put on in Denver last week.
Moreover, the drama that the McCain camp introduced into Convention Week with the Sarah Palin announcement last Friday is getting a bit out of control, and “out of control” is not a phrase you want to hear during a national political convention. Yesterday’s revelation that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant, and will carry the pregnancy to term and marry the child’s father, has increased suspicions that Team McCain did not conduct a particularly thorough vetting of their vice presidential candidate. When you are a 72-year-old cancer survivor running for president on your experience and character, an inept vice presidential selection process is not very reassuring.
It’s now clear that Palin will be the central focus of the GOP convention in a way that Joe Biden certainly wasn’t in Denver. And this presents the McCain campaign with an exquisite dilemma. Does it try to puff up her brief record of public service into an edifice of impressive accomplishments, claiming that she’s at least as qualified to become president as Barack Obama? Or does it go in the other direction and tout her lack of gravitas as an emblem of authenticity and populist “maverick” credentials?
I’m sure they’ll try to do both simultaneously, but my money’s on the latter theme as the real emphasis. At the Democratic convention, a lot of podium time was devoted to showcasing “real people” like Barney Smith and Lily Ledbetter with compelling personal stories related to the Obama campaign’s message and agenda. At the Republican convention, the most important “real person” to speak may well be the vice presidential nominee.
At Politico today, Charles Mahtesian nicely channels this approach to marketing Palin:
So far — and it is hard to tell what the future may hold for Palin’s unexpected national candidacy — the travails of the Palin family probably seem awfully familiar to many average Americans. It is this averageness that makes her such a politically promising running mate for John McCain — and such a dangerous opponent for Democrats. Many voters will find it easy to identify with her family’s struggles — a significant advantage in an election where the voting calculus is so unusually and intensely personal….
Even the governor’s own Trooper-gate scandal, in which Palin is alleged to have exerted undue pressure to fire a state trooper, is suffused with an element that many families can identify with: one sister stepping in on behalf of another in an acrimonious dispute with a brother-in-law.
While this approach is obviously risky, it has the additional benefit of representing something of a trap for Democrats, as I argued the other day. In a maneuver as old as the Nixon administration, Republicans can be expected to turn every every sneering reference to Palin’s lack of polish, her family issues, or her backwoods resume, into an elitist assault on the hardy folk virtues of the American people.
Aside from the fact that Palin’s Everywoman appeal could be overplayed–most Americans, after all, don’t consider themselves qualified to run the country–the vulnerability of this approach is that the Governor of Alaska doesn’t have “average” views. Sure, many people, particularly woman, will be able to relate to the painful choices Palin and her daughter faced in dealing with their pregnancies. But the fact remains that Sarah Palin fiercely believes that there was really no choice to be made in either case other than to carry the pregnancy to term, and would deny other women the choice of abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, by force of law.
And this is why the real excitement over the choice of Palin by McCain is most evident among the far fringes of right-wing populism, the kind of people who view politics as a righteous holy war against the “liberal elites” of both parties; the kind of activists who sent checks all those years to Jesse Helms’ Congressional Club and marched in the ranks of the Christian Right. Richard Viguerie, the godfather of right-wing direct mail, a man whose alienation from the Republican Party’s alleged infidelity to conservatism led him to advocate a Democratic victory in 2006, declared Palin “perfect.” Phyllis Schlafly, the slayer of the Equal Right Amendment and tireless agitator of every conservative fever swamp, called Palin the “complete package,” and was planning an event in St. Paul to fete her long before McCain selected her as veep. Christian Right warhorse James Dobson called Friday, the day Palin was announced, as “one of the most exciting days of my life.” Pat Buchanan went so far as to claim Palin as a member of his 1996 Brigades (a claim the McCain campaign quickly denied). At National Review’s The Corner and at Redstate.org, those durable blogospheric sounding posts for “movement conservatives,” her selection touched off all-day celebrations.
The notably cool reaction of GOP neoconservatives to the McCain/Palin ticket (their favorite, Joe Lieberman, was decisively vetoed by social conservatives) simply underscores her symbolism as the apotheosis of right-wing populism.
What all sorts of conservatives see in Sarah Palin is a real, authentic, salt-of-the-earth wingnut–“normal” only to the extent that your nice neighbor with the fading “US Out of the UN!” yard sign can be said to be “normal.” That may or may not be actually true of Palin, but what we know of her views and history so far certainly fits the profile well enough to explain the intense excitement about her among people who think the Republican Party has been dangerously and disappointingly liberal for decades.
And that is why I feel so strongly that Democrats should focus on her nutty views and questionable associations rather than her lack of experience in characterizing this critical decision by John McCain as reckless and irresponsible. Struggling with a choice between satisfying a restless Right and reinforcing his “maverick” street cred, McCain found a running-mate who was a “maverick” from the Right. And the one thing Democrats should not let McCain get away with this week is the contention that Palin has a natural claim on support and affection from moderate swing voters, particularly women who don’t believe in compulsory pregnancy.