When John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, I googled her and found her to be a very interesting mold of Republican, who took on her own party in Alaska and fought against the entrenched corruption in her state. She also had a pretty compelling personal story, in terms of her journey from hockey mom to public servant. My first reaction was therefore disappointment, because pulling Palin out of Alaska seems like eating your seed corn. Young, policy-driven leaders like Palin and Louisiana governor Bobby Kindal are GOP 2.0, the kind of Republican that the GOP needs to lead it out of the wilderness from which it is inevitably headed after this election cycle. It’s leaders like Palin and Jindal, in the mold of Schwarzenegger, who will be needed to recast the GOP as a party of solutions rather than ideology, along the lines advocated by Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in their new book, Grand New Party.
As John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, however, Palin is relegated to the status of hyper-partisan attack dog. In one prime-time televised speech she’s completely squandered whatever future she might have had as an appealing moderate Republican leader and is now diminished. If McCain loses, her political career is over. Having donned the mantle of hyper-partisan, social conservative warrior princess, she can’t easily reclaim the moderate mantle.
So be it. Palin has set a new course. But watching McCain’s speech Thursday night, which is more McCain 2000 than McCain 2008, I am struck by just how different the political landscape would be right now had Palin delivered a speech aimed at wooing the independent voter rather than exciting the base.
Arguably, the social conservatives who fell so easily into line with Palin’s appointment that they gave her a standing ovation before she’d said a single word, would have fallen into line come election day. And with both McCain and Palin giving persuasive appeals to the middle rather than stemwinders, real inroads might have been made towards Obama’s voter coalition.
However, it’s clear why McCain chose the lower road strategy – because the independents are independent, whereas the base is more predictable. McCain’s team doesn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, so they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. McCain alone could not excite the base, but by positioning Palin as a persecuted martyr (with the media playing the villain) and stoking a culture war, the social conservatives can be mobilized. Meanwhile, McCain will woo the middle by taking the rhetorical high road and pointedly mentioning key issues like alternate energy sources, global warming, and expressly non-ideological talk of finding solutions from “both sides of the aisle”.
If everything falls into place, they theoretically could pull it off – but the problem is that the independents are watching Palin, too. And they didn’t like what they saw:
“Who is Sarah Palin? I’m sorry but I still don’t know anymore about this young lady tonight than I did last night … The way it looks to me, she’s the Republican vice presidential nominee for one reason: because Hillary wasn’t selected.” — Mike Kosh, 38, West Bloomfield independent
“Sarah Palin is a self-described ‘pitbull with lipstick.’ She spent little time helping Americans learn who she is. She is a cool, poised speaker, but her speech contained few statements about policy or the party platform…. I am not convinced that Palin’s experience as a mayor or governor in Alaska meet the qualifications to be vice president much less one stroke or heart attack away from being commander in chief.” — Ilene Beninson, 52,
“Nothing worked for me. I found her barrage of snide remarksand distortions to be a major turn off. She is not a class act. The most important point she made is that she will be an effective attack dog.” — Jan Wheelock, 58, Royal Oak independent
Those were from focus groups in Detroit, MI (a critical swing state). Meanwhile, former Hillary voters in Nevada (another swing) were put off by Palin’s deragotory tone and lack of any policy specifics:
one attendee kicked off the discussion by saying “she’s a good speaker, and a crowd pleaser,” the rest of the room articulated their agreement. “I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was,” said another respondent. But then another woman added: “Once she started mudslinging, I thought, it’s the same old crap as other politicians. McCain used her to get the women’s vote. And she’s using McCain.”
“Thank you,” another woman responded. “That really upset me; there was no need for that. It was snippy.”
The unmarried group also voiced similar objections to the harsh, partisan edge of Palin’s remarks. “I’m not impressed with her at all as a person,” one said, citing her “finger pointing” and general sarcasm after the group had generally agreed that she was a talented public speaker.
So, will the gambit work? My guess is that Palin will succeed in bridging the enthusiasm gap and succeed in mobilizing the Republican base, but the Republican base is a. steadily shrinking and b. as incompatible with the independent vote as oil and water. Palin’s youth and contrast to McCain are a double-edged sword for him, as well. Further, Palin’s personal attacks on Obama triggered a democratic grassroots response, with $8M raised in 24 hours (almost twice the McCain campaign’s $4.5M post-Palin groundswell). Palin cannot erase the Obama campaign’s financial, infrastructure, and ground operation advantages. Also keep in mind that the McCain campaign has decided to gamble on a media scapegoating strategy, effectively ending the media honeymoon he’s enjoyed for most of his career, especially in the years since the 2000 campaign where he’s essentially abandoned his principles for political advantage.
As Marc Ambinder notes, it’s going to be a Palin September. But the spotlight is harsh, and in the end Palin is nothing more than another angry right-winger intent on lobbing the same old partisan attacks that John McCain disavowed one night later. Obama supporters should be more worried about what lies in store next month. Palin isn’t the only surprise coming down the pike.