Yesterday, the GOP did its best to make the country forget that they were watching the Republican convention. Tonight, the goal had changed: one after the other, GOP speakers took the stage to make the voters forget that the country has been under Republican rule for the past eight years.
Listening to tonight’s speakers, one might have thought that the White House is ruled by Democrats and that it is the GOP which is desperate to regain power. “Throw out the big government liberals,” demanded Mitt Romney, as he launched a litany of speeches that blasted the media, liberal power-brokers, special interests, congressional committee chairmen, cosmopolitanism and political correctness. Tonight was framed as a battle between small-town America and Washington, between the people and the elites, between patriots who are proud of their country and the ambitious opportunists who refuse to use the word “victory.”
In short, this was a night for the base. Red meat. Constant ad hominem attacks against Barack and Michelle Obama, their qualifications and patriotism. These speeches were necessary. A convention is meant to energize conservative and define the opposition. And Republicans are lucky enough to have speakers who can do so like no others.
But was that really what Sarah Palin ought to have been used for, and did the McCain campaign simply forget that she is an unknown figure in need of introduction? Have they committed the ultimate political sin, and have they bought their own spin that the questions that have been raised about Palin are only the invention of the liberal media and that average voters have no further questions they want answered? At the very least, the McCain campaign seems to have simply assumed that independents and swing voters share its contempt for Barack Obama.
I thought that the McCain campaign was spot on in its Tuesday strategy, and only small execution problems (mostly the fact that primetime coverage began with Bush’s address) prevented it from being a home-run. Tonight, I have little to say about the execution. It was the strategy I’m unsure about.
Palin’s speech laid a good case for why McCain should be president and why Obama should not. But other surrogates did that before her (and it was a bizarre sight to see McCain’s running-mate rely on the POW card just as much as other surrogates to make the case for his presidency). Palin needed to do more than what she accomplished tonight: She needed to introduce herself in a way that explained why she should be vice-president, and she barely attempted to do that.
The campaign had prepared an introductory video to be aired before Palin’s remarks, but that was scrapped out of the program when Giuliani’s comments ran too long. That was the first mistake. Voters have been hearing a lot of problematic information about Palin for 5 days now, and the RNC’s infomercial was absolutely necessary. Palin then launched into an 8-minute long introduction of every member of her family, a section that felt much longer than the part Palin actually devoted to herself. And for Palin’s first words about her qualifications - the first time most voters will have heard her say anything about her political self - to be words of contempt for the opposition was not the best way to silence her critics:
Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves.
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening. We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.
Viewers had tuned in to find out whom Sarah Palin was, but sarcastic attacks against Barack Obama took more space than Palin’s self-presentation. In fact, sarcastic attacks on Barack Obama and the media were more often than not Palin’s self-presentation. Palin’s argument was that she was more qualified than Obama because “what does he actually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back the waters and healing the planet?”
Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani can afford to diss community organizers because they themselves need no introduction. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden could afford to spend their speeches blasting the GOP. But Sarah Palin had not yet earned that right, not with all the questions people surely have about her, and not all of them particularly complex. Those attacks would have been fine if she had been a well-known vice-presidential nominee around whom there was no media frenzy. It would have been fine if voters had heard of Sarah Palin before last Friday.
Worse still, Sarah Palin’s jabs at the Illinois Senator were often designed for an insider crowd, the type of attack that is reserved for the 8pm or 9pm hour - not for primetime. Palin mocked “those Styrofoam Greek columns… hauled back to some studio lot” and she mocked Obama’s “presidential seal.” That got the crowd on its feet, but did the average voter read anything about those columns?
Why would viewers want to know what contempt Palin has for the Democratic Party and about her conviction that Obama thinks of himself as a Messiah before knowing anything about the vice-presidential nominee herself? That most pundits came out of the speech thinking that she did is surely do to the fact that the hall’s delegates were on their feet and had no qualms about her, giving her address an intensity that the speeches of other speakers who said similar things in similar ways did not possess. Republican delegates recognize her as one of their own, and they are thus interested in her opinion and the red meat she wants to feed them.
That Palin unleashed her scorn against “community organizers” and Obama’s small town comments before even going through any of her accomplishments either as mayor or governor can mean only two things - either that the McCain campaign thinks voters already know and trust Sarah Palin, or that she was not meant to try to appeal to independents or moderate Democrats who are hesitating between the two candidates. Those swing voters might not trust Obama, but it is unlikely that they have this much of contempt for him. If they do they would have already fallen in the McCain camp, if they don’t they were probably turned off from listening to Palin’s self-presentation before she even started it. Palin’s speech was designed to appeal to the base and to movement conservatives, and little beyond that.
So could it be that the Palin pick is entirely designed to appeal to conservatives and the McCain campaign does not plan (or has given up on?) using her to appeal to independents. Perhaps the GOP thinks it can win by duplicating Bush’s 2004 campaign and winning on the strength of the base. Yesterday, I thought the GOP had realized it could not pull that off this year given how much the GOP base has shrunk in the past four years, but Palin’s speech makes me think the McCain campaign might have hope to replicate that strategy.
This was the night’s basic dynamic. One after the other, the main speakers served us a replay of their attacks on John Kerry, and I do not think it was strategically misguided for most of them but Palin to do so. Mitt Romney railed against anything that might remotely be considered liberal, but it is Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani who transported us back to 2004, back to the cultural divide the GOP sought to create between Kerry the wind-surfing patrician and Bush, the beer-drinking man of the people. Everything was there. Democratic elitism, disdain for rural America, lack of patriotism, and even flip-flops.
“I hope for his sake, Joe Biden got that VP thing in writing,” Giuliani said. He also launched one of the harshest attacks on Obama’s executive experience, saying the Illinois Senator had led “nothing. Nada.” And when he said “His rise is remarkable in its own right - it’s the kind of thing that could happen only in America,” the audience laughed, just as when he said the words “community organizers” with palpable derision. We will never know whether Giuliani intended the “only in America” line to be sarcastic, but his speech’s goal was clear - to ridicule Obama.
Let me be clear about something: My point is not that this is a bad strategy or that sarcasm will not work for Republicans. Quite a contrary, this is a crucial part of the GOP’s strategy. It worked to rally the base against Kerry in 2004, and Republicans could make progress among blue-collar whites (Obama’s ultimate weak point) and put Obama on the defensive by portraying him as out of touch, disrespectful of small town values, too European. My point is rather that after a night devoted entirely to that strategy (and Giuliani’s speech was shown on primetime, so it’s not like Palin would be the only person viewers would see), Palin should have taken another route and, while attacking Obama, also taken care of making voters understand why she has been picked.
Also, the ridiculing strategy alone cannot win the election this year. While the GOP has been attacking Obama as an aragula-eating celebrity, I don’t believe it has laid out the groundwork to unleash this much ridicule upon Obama the way they had prepared it for weeks against Kerry. By the time of the GOP convention in 2004, the electorate shared the Republicans’ contempt for John Kerry; there is no evidence of that being the case this year, and I don’t even think the McCain campaign did not really aim for that. It prepared the groundwork for a more serious argument than the one it used against Kerry, one about Obama’s experience and the risk he represents for the country. That requires a dark tone that paints Obama into the mysterious shadowy creature invoked in the Ayers ad.
What Palin delivered was a stump speech, one that is sure to make her a darling of conservatives and a star in the party but not one that increases McCain’s prospects (unless McCain plans to use her for nothing but conservative outreach over the next two month). Even less will it dampen the slow, distracting drip of revelations. In fact, by the time Palin finished speaking the Washington Post had gotten its hands on the e-mails Palin sent to state troopers from her e-mail account to get her ex brother-in-law fired. It is also incredible to me that Palin claimed once again that she had opposed to the Bridge to Nowhere, even after all that has come out about that over the past few days, even after this! That was a true act of defiance, and it’s never good to declare war on the press. And so the media vetting continues.
All my nightly analysis of both conventions here.
Update: Two focus group-type experiments confirm that viewers feel like they did not learn who Palin was last night - see here and here - confirming that the speech was primarily aimed at movement conservatives.