Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mike Huckabee with Lipstick

Wow. What a night. I'd like to sit down and put together a post that has some sort of grand narrative which explains last night's events, but it hasn't all sunk in to that level quite yet so I'll just roll with a couple of brief observations:

First, Palin is a gifted public speaker. There really isn't much sense debating this point. She started a bit slow but quickly gained confidence and she held the audience in rapt attention. That being said, as with nearly every other aspect of her selection, the fact that she gave a good performance, and that this performance is being touted as proof of her fitness for office, flies directly in the face of what Republicans have been saying about Obama for months: that he is nothing more than a string of well-crafted speeches. To top it off, she didn't even write the damn speech. Again, if you are a Republican looking to accept Palin for what she is, you have to ignore everything you and your party have said about Obama since he announced he was running for the White House. As you can well imagine, this sort of backstory makes differentiating between what was said in derision about Mr. Obama and what is accepted as a positive about Ms. Palin a tad bit problematic. Fortunately for us, this little dilemma hasn't stopped many Republicans from trying to square the circle.

I would like to take a moment to step back and tell you about something Democrats can learn from Republicans. Earlier in the week, McCain Campaign manager Rick Davis let fly with this little nugget:

Rick Davis, campaign manager for John McCain's presidential bid, insisted that the presidential race will be decided more over personalities than issues during an interview with Post editors this morning.

"This election is not about issues," said Davis. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

Davis added that issues will no doubt play a major role in the decisions undecided voters will make but that they won't ultimately be conclusive. He added that the campaign has "ultimate faith" in the idea that the more voters get to know McCain and Barack Obama, the better the Republican nominee will do.

Yesterday, there was much ado made about Peggy Noonan telling the world what she really thinks about Sarah Palin. One of her main points was that the McCain campaign chose Palin based on a narrative rather than a set of issues. Most of my liberal friends are somewhat taken aback that a campaign wouldn't be decided by "the issues". Most people I know still cling to the belief that "creating our own reality" doesn't hold some sort of truth in the modern world. However, the more we know about how the mind works, the more we realize that "reality" and "reason" are not simply a matter of objective external truths, rather a composite notion of mostly unconscious information. You don't win people over by simply presenting the facts and hoping that reason kicks their brain into auto-pilot so that they will land safely on your side of the issue. Whether you know it or not, your brain is working overtime processing vast amounts of information when you listen to someone like Sarah Palin and compare her to someone like Joe Biden. The idea that this election can be made simply with the "issues" is an absurd notion; an even more absurd one is that people make political decisions without taking into consideration (consciously or not) things like how much someone smiles, how familiar they look, how friendly they seem, and so on and so forth. If anything, the way Republicans appeal to voters is more in line with how people actually think than do Democrats.

Moving on with this notion, the question now becomes this: at what point can you focus so much on the composite identity that you create such a gap between the composite and reality that the whole operation jumps the shark? I don't have the answer to this question but I do have a nagging feeling about the following assumptions made by the McCain campaign:
  1. That Palin can pass the "experience test" at the expense of months and months of attacking Obama for his lack of experience
  2. That Palin can be taken on face value when she outright lies about her opposition to things like earmarks and establishment politics.
  3. That Palin's rhetoric about bucking the old man's club of Washington can be taken seriously when the man at the top of her ticket has been there for over a quarter of a century.
  4. That Palin's selection can be viewed outside of the context of McCain's snap judgment with very little vetting.
  5. That Palin's family can be used as a positive example of her values while at the same time being off-limits for any negative extrapolations.
There are a few others, but ultimately I think it will be hard for the average non-GOP-red-meat voter to view her selection as anything other than a cynical attempt to "balance" out the ticket with a woman who appeals to the GOP base. The GOP has controlled the White House for the past 8 years. They have controlled Congress for 6 out of the last 8 years. Yet, the entire convention is nothing more than a souped-up attempt to place the blame of the GOP's short comings on the party that wasn't in charge. Going back and reading her speech, it is remarkable in its attempt to bait emotions associated with victimhood: from straw man complaints about the elite media to liberals "looking down" on small town America, the actual content of her rhetoric, I believe, crosses the line between creating a useful composite of emotions that will put independent voters into action and a stratosphere where people will be left scratching their heads while thinking, "what the hell is she talking about?"

One of the most interesting parts of her speech was when she told a joke about the only difference between a pit-bull and a hockey mom is lipstick. However, this sort of humor-based juxtaposition cuts both ways with a candidate chosen on the basis of rank cynicism: she is a tube of lipstick removed from being Mike Huckabee. If you throw in things like actually playing hockey and 6 years of gubernatorial experience, she is a few dollars of Revlon removed from Tim Pawlenty. I get that her speech was done well and that it will play extremely well with the GOP base. What I don't get is how independent voters or fence-leaning Democrats could view her performance as anything other than a cynical play against each and every thing the GOP has been saying about Mr. Obama (and Hillary Clinton) for months on end. In a weird way, her speech and selection are a time-machine back to the late-80s and early-90s when Republicans ran against 12 years of Reagan/Bush and when they selected Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the SCOTUS. Much like the talk of liberal racism oozed out of GOP supporters of Thomas, GOP operatives have spent the time since Palin's speech telling anyone with an open mic that liberals oppose her because of nothing more than her identity as a woman. It's wedge-based cynicism at its very finest. However, that street runs both ways and the simple fact remains that she wouldn't be on that stage without her particular political identity. It's most assuredly not about the issues; it's an incredibly cynical play and I guess we will have to wait to see if it is effective.

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