The Selection of Sarah exciting or terrifying?

Guy Rundle reports from St Paul on the buzz about McCain’s promotion of creationist, gun-owner Sarah Palin.

Guy Rundle

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‘I just cannot understand how Democrats can hear Osama bin Laden and not understand. I mean what part of “we want to kill you” do you not get?’

Trapped in the airport shuttle buses, heading into Minneapolis proper, we all shifted uneasily, as the large woman, a delegate from Montana, broke the unwritten rule of shuttle etiquette and filled the space with standard-issue Fox News news.

‘Are you a liberal or a conservative?’ she bore down on me. ‘Well uh, I’m from Australia, the politics don’t really match up’, I lied, ready to invent impenetrable ethnic conflicts if necessary: ‘I write for some left papers and some libertarian websites.’ She stared at me long and hard. ‘How is that possible?’, she asked, confused. ‘How’s Montana doing?’ someone said from the back. ‘Last time I heard it was going over to Obama.’ The rest of the journey was taken up with her hip replacement.

It was the third such conversation I’d had or heard since touching down – itchy, combative, the old big guns of the Culture War being wheeled to the front.

For those who had come straight from Denver to the eerie city of St Paul – a sort of lesser, evil twin to Minneapolis, stuffed with Hopperesque Victorian architecture that no one has got around to demolishing yet – it was a strange feeling, with the Democratic finale still humming in the memory. Whatever one felt of the politics of spectacle or identity on display in Denver, few could deny that it was an intoxicating performance, with Obama giving one of his best speeches – themed on the notion of ‘the American promise’, in which he mixed a series of more concrete proposals with an echo of his lofty rhetoric of the primary season.

McCain’s job was to try to gazump Obama’s performance. And gazump it he did, with a Friday morning announcement of his vice-presidential choice – Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska. Until 20 months ago, Palin had been the mayor of Wasilla, which is basically a small suburb of Anchorage with a population variously figured to be between 6,000 and 9,000 people depending on which source you use. The announcement spread like wildfire; at Denver Airport, every departure lounge was full of journalists following the story on their Blackberries, breathlessly relaying the same Wikipedia details to editors on the coast. Restaurant and retail staff stopped to watch CNN on the airport screens. Pre-decision rumours said the job might go to local Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty or the awful Mitt Romney – so the sight of old buggerlugs standing beside a woman, who had achieved the improbable feat of looking younger than Barack Obama, was pretty hard to top. The universal description of the choice was ‘exciting’. ‘Hillary Clinton put 18million cracks in the glass ceiling’, Governor Palin told the assembled press. ‘And the women of America aren’t done yet!’

According to some reports, senior Republican officials had another word for the promotion of Palin: ‘terrifying’. The choice of Palin hints at the nervousness that McCain’s inner-circle feels about the way the polls are going; it suggests that they think victory over Obama will only be achieved by making audacious moves. If the McCain camp had been convinced that it was steadily pulling ahead of Obama, it would have chosen someone to emphasise Obama’s inexperience, such as Romney, or Joe Lieberman. The choice of Palin is an attempt to punch through, to change the terms of the contest. It got early results, with the Obama team releasing an initial statement damning Palin as a former small-town mayor and a ‘cynical’ choice.

In the sphere of the American commentariat, where wishful thinking has long since taken the place of analysis, left-liberal commentators such as Maureen Dowd damned the choice as desperate; the right celebrated it as a choice that the left ‘feared’. A more dispassionate analysis would suggest that only Palin’s subsequent performance will retroactively establish one side as bearers of deep, reflective wisdom and the other as ‘out of touch with the American people’. What one can say is that it is a high-risk choice, which would not have been made in any other election year.

Palin is a practically lifelong Alaskan, who worked briefly as a regional TV sports reporter, before becoming a local councillor in the early 1990s, and then mayor of Wasilla. She rapidly gained a reputation for toughness against an entrenched political machine, sacking her own police chief, and later resigning her appointment to the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission and filing corruption complaints against fellow Republican members of that body.

Off the back of that win, she won the Republican primary for the governor candidacy, and then the governorship itself in 2006. While she won a lot of support for highly visible stunts such as selling the former governor’s recently purchased Learjet on eBay, she also gained the undying enmity of a section of the Republican establishment, a feeling amplified when Alaska patriarch Senator Ted Stevens was indicted on charges of corruption thanks to Palin two months ago.

The drive, the efficiency, the independent streak make up a part of her attractiveness as VP candidate – the other attraction is her solid social conservatism. A Pentecostal Christian, she is hardline anti-abortion and anti same-sex marriage, and on creationism she supports ‘teaching the controversy’. For her, the personal and political are intertwined – she became a poster-mom for the anti-abortion movement when she gave birth to her fifth child despite knowing he would have Down’s syndrome, a move that is now portrayed by right-wing commentators less as a personal choice than an heroic expression of cultural resistance.

In that sense, Palin’s a safe choice for Republicans. Many suspect she was selected to satisfy the Christian right faction of the party, which would have departed permanently had McCain insisted on his other maverick choice, former Democrat (and Democrat VP candidate) Joe Lieberman, a social liberal.

Yet the fact cannot be ignored that compared to Sarah Palin, the ‘inexperienced’ Barack Obama looks like Talleyrand in his eighth decade. At least Obama has had a couple of years in the Senate. Palin, by contrast, gives no appearance of having focused on national or international issues at all. She’s a familiar figure in provincial politics: she is someone who was drawn into the political sphere by an irritation with an obvious idiocy (sales tax, in her case), who then suddenly discovered that she possesses that which is essential to every mainstream politician: highly integrated skills.

Thus she has panache (that Learjet), but also application and energy; guts (that police chief), but also diplomacy and conciliation. In places like Alaska, where corruption has driven many capable people out of politics, or out of the state altogether, people like Palin rise quickly. Yet the other side of the coin is that her focus has practically been entirely on the parochial.

Until last year, Palin had never been out of the country, and barely out of Alaska. Unsurprisingly she has almost no foreign policy opinions on record. A month ago, she not only pooh-poohed the suggestion that she was a VP candidate, but also questioned whether the job was worth it: ‘But as for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration.’ Her startling resemblance to Elaine Benes from Seinfeld does not help the perception of her as enthusiastic, but possibly also ditzy.

The great fear for Republican hacks is that Joe Biden, Obama’s VP candidate and a walking encyclopaedia of domestic and foreign policy, will take her apart in the vice-presidential debates, and it will be suddenly clear that a Republican victory will ensure that the White House is one cold-snap away from being run by someone who has spent her career thinking about snowmobiles and regional airstrips.

However, the converse may also be true: she may make Biden look like a doddering dinosaur and, with due tutelage, appear smart and fast in comparison. But what is interesting is the extent to which the selection of Palin suggests that leadership and statesmanship play no real part in serious presidential politics now.

This goes for Obama, too. Part of his appeal is that he put together a new sort of political career from the standard chaos of a postmodern life – tens of millions of younger people recognise in him the same bewildering wander through college, a couple of different dead-end jobs, a bit of going-back-to-the-roots, and so on. Once he somehow achieved his new status as ‘probably the first black president of the United States’, Obama solidified his ticket with an elder mentor: Joe Biden, less Kennedy than Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ironically, then, the Obama ticket seems almost solid, with two types of experience on it, in comparison to the Republicans’ ticket; the offering of McCain and Palin seems more yippie-ishly improvised than the emergence of Obama over the past couple of years.

The Palin vice-presidential selection has more the mark of backroom stunt-making than an old-fashioned political decision. It looks like something decided upon by a strategy team locked in a room at the Ramada Inn for four days, who came up with a triangulated choice so brilliant that hopefully no-one will notice that it holes the campaign’s main selling point below the waterline.

For the Republicans, it is a hell of a week. Obama got perfect weather for his extravaganza, while this week Hurricane Gustav powers towards New Orleans with the air of finishing the job that Katrina started. Given the Republican convention theme – ‘country first’ – the prospect of Gustav resurrecting memories of Katrina, Bush’s terrible moment of indecision, is a nightmare. In the eyes of some observers, it is also, however, an enormous opportunity, where the whole convention, apart from procedural matters such as formally nominating a candidate, could be turned into a sort of telethon for Gustav.

Yet even the manner in which such things are being suggested – where apparently this is a time when politics needs to be ‘put aside’ – is indicative of how weak the conservative brand is today, and how little confidence Republicans have in asserting a joined-up worldview. A grounded conservative party would argue that a hurricane hitting one area of a large country is not thermonuclear war, and that the choice of a candidate and expression of a programme really matters – and what’s more, that managing a hurricane while getting on with politics as usual is something a complex society should be able to do. Yet because the party half suspects that such a suggestion would be greeted with horror these days, and because many of them have little confidence in such a proposition anyway, then, to paraphrase the German satirist Tuchowlsky, owing to bad weather the Republican revolution is occurring as muzak.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and is covering the US election campaign for the independent online media service Crikey.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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