Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday night was a mix of rapturous success and seemingly oblivious failure.
From beginning to end, the five-day running mate of Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain held the delegates on the convention floor in the palm of her hand, swinging them from quiet lows to deliriously cheering highs. One could almost hear the base of the Republican Party oscillating with ecstasy. Insofar as the McCain campaign needed to reassure far-right Republicans about his candidacy, Palin’s speech was a resounding success. I don’t think that need was great, but she worked the room well. Palin also did a passable job of presenting the carefully packaged story of her family that the campaign has wanted the media to tell for the past several days.
In spite of what the talking heads on the 24-hour news channels (with perhaps the exception of David Gergen) said immediately following Palin’s performance, however, it wasn’t the kind of success the Republican Party needed. Judging from Palin’s speech, the campaign failed to recognize that it was manufacturing a failure. The problem?
The problem is that she and the handlers who seem to be taking tighter and tighter control of the McCain campaign appeared not to understand that she didn’t need to address the delegates at the convention. They and the vast majority of likely Republican voters weren’t in any serious danger of sitting out the election, much less voting for Sen. Barack Obama. That’s where Hillary Clinton, to crib from her own joke, beat the pantsuit off of Palin with her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton knew she was speaking to those 18 million supporters she’s fond of mentioning, not the folks at the convention. Palin needed to give uncommitted voters and some of those Clinton voters substantive reasons to choose McCain, and in this she failed utterly.
I don’t think Palin’s smug and smarmy manner did her or her running mate any favors, either. One of the things I’ve always liked about McCain is that he really is different in ways that make him more human and distinguish him from most other Washington politicians. He often looks uncomfortable, he’s got a temper, he sometimes makes inappropriate jokes and I would imagine that even people who know McCain well sometimes don’t know how to take him. But he seems to respect people who disagree with him. And regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions, he seems to consider the issues with the seriousness they deserve. Palin, on the other hand, came off as if she were a popular kid running against a loathsome nerd for junior-high class president. At first, watching her speak reminded me of George W. Bush, but then I got a flash of The Church Lady or Tracy Flick with an element of Dolores Umbridge. John McCain has seemed above that sort of thing (though maybe due as much to congenital quirkiness as to principle), and it was refreshing to see him run something resembling an honorable political campaign, if such a thing is possible. I don’t expect McCain to start sneering and snickering, but for a while it was nice to think that he wouldn’t choose a running mate who would do it.
It’s unfortunate that Palin’s speech consisted largely of smug attacks on Sen. Barack Obama’s personality, because she is said to be an intelligent politician with a sincere desire for reform. Plus, there are plenty of questions about Obama that need a serious approach. His professed intention to cut taxes for most Americans while leaning more heavily on people making more than $200,000 per year, for instance, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Bill Clinton also promised to soak the rich and lighten up on the little guy, but the result was higher taxes for almost everyone, low-income taxpayers included. And Obama’s threshold would seem to capture a lot of small businesses and sole proprietorships that aren’t sending anyone on vacations to St. Bart’s but that drive a huge part of the economy in many communities. If Wednesday’s speech is any indication, the McCain campaign will mix in more sneers when instead they could probably compete on the real substance of the issues.
The worst part for the nation is that Palin’s speech continued the unfortunate trend of politics as cartoon. That is, everything is seen through a childishly simplified lens, and negotiation toward common ground is a thing of the past. Republicans in the Nixon strain, for all their faults, were open to give-and-take (perhaps even more than some Democrats of the same era, such as LBJ). But the modern conservative, like too many a California liberal or San Francisco progressive, seems to consider even an objective examination of facts to be a weakness — never mind meeting in the middle. California, now more than two months without a state budget largely because of a cartoonishly polarized state Legislature, is reaping the unpalatable fruits of this trend — which here in the Golden State are made even more rotten by a deliberately fixed system of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts.
Going back to the plus side of the register for the McCain-Palin ticket, McCain shines in town-hall settings and smaller groups where he can speak directly to people in a conversational tone, but Palin apparently can take on the huge rallies where McCain’s human scale seems dwarfed. If the folks running the McCain campaign have any sense at all, they will stick Palin in front of the biggest handpicked crowds they can muster, and under no circumstances whatsoever allow her to answer a question from the press. When the choir is big, Palin clearly can preach the word, but so far it doesn’t look like she’s going to bring in any uncommitted converts.