The truth about the pitbull in lipstick

She’s neither evil incarnate nor the saviour of the Republicans, but an opportunist who plays the ‘hockey mom’ lifestyle card.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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With the jolt of energy from Sarah Palin’s speech to its National Convention, the Republicans are now promoting themselves as resurgent, united and ready to win the presidential election in November. But a closer look at the past week reveals a party that is defensive about the Bush years, unconfident about its traditional ideas and trying to redefine itself so as to be relevant. Even Palin’s well-received presentation cannot hide the fact that the party still has to overcome significant problems, and that it is very difficult to redefine a party’s mission in the middle of a campaign.

The Republicans started their convention week on the back foot, with the media swooping in to find out more about the previously unknown Palin. Her personal life became a major topic of discussion, including a rumour of whether her infant son was hers, the news that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, a debate about juggling family and work life, and derisory comments about her hunting and other Alaskan activities. Such ‘critiques’ of Palin are not political; they are just backward.

But at the same time, the media also asked many legitimate questions that made the Republicans squirm. Thanks to their investigations, we learned that the McCain campaign’s ‘story’ about Palin was flawed. As Joe Klein of Time put it, ‘Palin raised taxes as governor, supported the Bridge to Nowhere [a much-derided proposal to fund a bridge to a remote Alaskan island] before she opposed it, pursued pork-barrel projects as mayor, tried to ban books at the local library and thinks the war in Iraq is “a task from God”.’ (1) These points don’t add up to a devastating criticism, but they do put a serious dent in the campaign’s message that Palin is a reformer.

Republicans at the convention – including one-time contenders Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Guiliani from the podium – used the more scurrilous personal Palin coverage to attack the ‘Washington media elite’ generally. But this came across as an attempt to squash any critical comments about Palin, even legitimate ones.

Take the discussion of Palin’s lack of credentials to be in the vice-president role, especially her lack of foreign policy experience or knowledge. In response, McCain campaign representatives have argued – very unconvincingly – that she has been the commander-in-chief of the Alaskan National Guard and the fact that Alaska is near to Russia gives her special insight (!). When Campbell Brown of CNN asked Tucker Bounds, a McCain campaign spokesman, to name one decision Palin had made as the commander-in-chief of the National Guard, Bounds could not answer (2). As it happens, Palin has not made any decisions in that capacity (3). But the McCain campaign cited Brown’s reasonable questioning as a prime example of how the media elite was unfair to Palin, and consequently withdrew from further interviews with CNN. Blaming the media may help rally the troops at the Republican convention, but it’s hardly a sign of a confident campaign.

After her rocky introduction to national politics, Palin sought to use her acceptance speech at the convention to define herself. With spirited style, she introduced her family, relayed her experience in Alaskan politics, attacked Barack Obama and praised John McCain. And the Republican faithful in the arena loved it. The vilification of her in the days leading up to the convention had lowered expectations, and with her poised presentation she easily exceeded them. But while pro-Republicans were excited by her performance – some thought they had seen the future of the party, or another Ronald Reagan (4) – questions remained.

Before her speech, many challenged whether she was qualified for the role, and the speech did not fully allay those concerns. And not only liberals raised this issue; conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer drew attention to ‘the paucity of any Palin record or expressed conviction on the major issues of our time’ (5). Even though criticising Obama for his lack of experience was McCain’s main theme up until he selected Palin, this obviously no longer mattered very much. In fact, Palin’s lack of big-time experience and ‘hockey mom’ ordinariness was now held up as a virtue in itself, because it meant that working people, especially women, could relate to her (6). It was as if the McCain people sought their own version of Obama – someone fresh, from outside established Washington politics, who people could identify with on a non-political basis. However, they seemed to overlook that Obama wasn’t just anybody plucked from obscurity – he had spent years proving himself under the national spotlight, and had displayed reasonable knowledge about domestic and world affairs.

Of course, experience can be overrated, and ideas and judgment might compensate, but Palin didn’t provide much evidence of those either in her speech. She spent plenty of time attacking Obama, and extolling McCain’s character, but not much telling us what she (or McCain) would actually do in office, beyond more drilling for oil. She talked about how she reformed Alaskan politics, but as mentioned, her record in this regard is not as shiny as she makes out.

Instead, after hearing her speech, it seemed her presence on the ticket is mainly to rally the Republicans’ social conservative base. Indeed, some of her most effective moments were counter-attacks to Obama’s aloofness and elitism. Referring to the ‘Bittergate’ controversy, Palin said: ‘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 their guns when those people aren’t listening.’ She also seemed to take a swipe at Michelle Obama when she said people in small towns are ‘always proud of America’.

McCain might be glad that, thanks to Palin, he now has more foot soldiers signed up to campaign for him. And Palin’s conservative populism has the potential to gain support beyond evangelical Christians and other Republicans. But given the fragmentation and variety of lifestyles in the US today, it is questionable whether her brand of Republicanism will have truly broad appeal – in fact, many might be turned off. What is clear is that it is a very un-ambitious approach: like George W Bush’s ‘51 per cent strategy’ (that is, secure your base and then hope you squeak by), McCain’s use of Palin seems to suggest that he too believes there are large segments that he simply cannot convince.

At the same time, Palin’s ‘conservatism’ is a defensive one. Everyone seems to know that Palin is against abortion, and in favour of guns and creationism. And yet these are causes that she dare not mention: she did not refer to these social issues at all in her speech. Furthermore, her record suggests that she has not taken any action with regard to these issues while serving as Alaska’s governor (7). Palin does not seem to herald the return of the Moral Majority, arguing loudly and confidently on moral grounds. Instead, these issues go unstated, and are more about defining who Palin is in terms of her identity and lifestyle. Her only appeal to others is on the grounds of implied shared lifestyles. This hardly expresses a confidence in arguing for traditional morality.

Rather than being the wicked witch as some Democrats make out, or the saviour of conservatism as some Republicans believe, the more mundane truth is that Palin is just an inexperienced opportunist who has been catapulted into the national arena because of the oddities of our current politics. And who knows how long she will last – there are real questions about whether she will succeed under greater scrutiny. The McCain campaign, for one, doesn’t seem to have much confidence in her ability – it has blocked any interactions between her and the media.

McCain’s acceptance speech after Palin’s performance was different in style and substance, and he didn’t excite the crowd the way Palin had. No John McCain speech is without reference to his days as a prisoner of war, and an occasion as important as his formal nomination would be no exception. But just as Obama’s reliance on biography is a crutch, so too is McCain’s. His speech was largely devoid of policies, and biography can’t make up for that. But that won’t stop McCain from trying; in fact, his campaign manager Rick Davis has said ‘this election is not about issues’ but rather character (8).

McCain used the speech to re-launch his campaign around the theme of ‘change’. He is trying to seize the slogan from Obama. McCain’s case for change is built, as he says, on his reputation as a ‘maverick’. But there are a number of problems with his approach. For a start, many dispute whether he truly is all that maverick: he’s been in Congress for 26 years, and seems to talk more about reforms than to implement them; furthermore, on a number of issues in recent years he has clearly supported the Bush administration line. More to the point, what’s so great about being a maverick? As with biography, taking a maverick stance is not evidence of ideas – it is not a governing philosophy, nor a broad set of policies. The ‘earmarks’ McCain promises to fight are hardly the main problems facing the US.

The other major problem with running on a programme of ‘change’ is that it means running head-on against the Bush administration and the Republican Party itself. Given the deep unpopularity of the Bush regime, the obvious question is: if the Republicans are to blame for the current mess, why should we elect Republicans again? McCain has gone to great lengths to distance himself, claiming in advertisements that ‘We’re worse off than we were four years ago’ and not mentioning the president by name in his speech. His trick will be to try to convince voters that all of Washington, including Democrats in Congress, are to blame for the current state of affairs, and that he will take on the entire system. But he’s got an uphill battle. And McCain’s ascendancy to the top of the Republican Party, running against the party itself, shows that this party no longer knows what it believes in, just that it is against what it once was.

About 40million people watched the Palin and McCain speeches on TV – about the same number that viewed Obama’s speech the week before. Mainly thanks to Palin, the McCain campaign has a new enthusiasm after its convention. It has also adopted more aggressive tactics in its contest with the Democrats. But while there may be new signs of life, the past week has also revealed a Republican Party with major problems: a party that is trying to escape its past, lacks confidence in its ideas, and is confused about its direction. Without a compass, the party under McCain has embraced anti-political trends, such as personality politics and identity-based lifestyles. That’s not a ‘change’ worth fighting for.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Angry amateurs, Time, 3 September 2008

(2) Tucker Bounds on Palin’s National Security Experience, YouTube

(3) Official: Palin never issued an order to Alaska Guard, Anchorage Daily News, 3 September 2008

(4) Sarah Palin’s surge, Wall Street Journal, 5 September 2008

(5) ‘Palin’s problem’, Washington Post, 5 September 2008.

(6) For example, see Daniel Henninger, What’s so special about Sarah?, 4 September 2008.

(7) Palin has not pushed creation science as governor, Associated Press, 3 September 2008.

(8) McCain Manager: ‘this election is not about issues’, Washington Post, 2 September 2008

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