Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Clear-Cut Case of 1988 Thinking

It is the mid-summer of 1988, and you are a comparatively lackluster Republican candidate for President--the presumptive nominee--swimming upstream against the challenge of succeeding a two-term President, and suffering from a curiously durable problem closing the deal with your own base. They don't like you, it so happens, because they remember your erratic voting record on issues such as birth control and school prayer while you served at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. What do you do? Very, very simple: You choose a completely unvetted but notoriously fulminating extremist firebrand as your running mate.

The beauty of this decision (all but entirely missed by the mainstream press at the time) is that the extreme wing of your own party is made of people who will actually be more likely to support your decision, the more universally it is panned by journalists and beltway insiders. The bumpier things get for your pick, the stronger your own standing with the equally un-worldly supporters you've been courting with such uneven success up to now. Surely you can't be an elitist who owns multiple properties and can't be trusted to carry the Evangelical war-standard into battle, either one, if you're prepared to defend the "good name" of someone self-evidently out of his depths in the national dialogue.

Once you've galvanized that far-right-wing of your party by choosing someone less intelligent and more reactionary than you have ever been on the scariest day of your political career, your victory is secure: Your base has more people in it, they consistently have "deeper party affiliation," they are far more unified in their agenda for the next four years, and, best of all, they've already lavished upon you an enormous funding advantage, even before deciding for sure that they're completely convinced you won't jilt them at the altar. All you have to do is make the crazies in your midst a lot angrier at the national intelligentsia, and you're our next President.

Except this isn't 1988. This is 2008. And none of those built-in advantages favor the Republicans this time--from the ground-game to the funding to the depth of enthusiasm for each party's agenda, this time all the major factors favor the Democrats. And that's why, after another day of machination on the choice, McCain's VP nominee looks more and more like it has the trappings of a grave mistake. Even if the "swells" completely overplay their hand and seriously offend the extremist right with their caricatures of Sarah Palin, the extremist right won't win this election for John McCain. Indeed the battle-plan is already emerging, and its a good one: to the obvious "more of the same" arguments already being proffered by Team Obama, the first Sunday news circuit prominently featured Democratic chargesthat it is Mr. McCain, ironically, whose judgment has emerged as the significantly less mature and more reckless. (A charge that carries with it the inestimable bonus of being true.)

For McCain, the next seven to fourteen days are certainly the most crucial; his choice of Sarah Palin has been met by uncertainty and suspended judgment more than any single other emotional note, both inside the Beltway and out--which is why the impact of Hurrican Gustav on the Republican Convention carries with it such an enormous downside risk. If the Democrats succeed in defining Ms. Palin before Senator McCain can do so, the obvious result will be that significantly more centrists will jump across, than extremists will jump aboard.

And this time -- this time -- that's a trade that a lackluster Republican candidate can not afford to make.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Palin is a creationist, a virulent anti-abortionist, and a politician with a bad record of governance. These are all Republican virtues, which is why she was picked to run with McGrumpy.

All this talk of Obama's lack of experience by Republican pundits and blowhards has suddenly ceased, replaced by quiet chirping of crickets. Perhaps Michael Kinsley said it best in the WaPo the other day:

"The whole "experience" debate is silly. Under our system of government, there is only one job that gives you both executive and foreign policy experience, and that's the one McCain and Obama are running for. Nevertheless, it's a hardy perennial: If your opponent is a governor, you accuse him of lacking foreign policy experience. If he or she is a member of Congress, you say this person has never run anything. And if, by chance, your opponent has done both, you say that he or she is a "professional politician." When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits.

That's why the important point about Palin's lack of experience isn't about Palin. It's about McCain. And the question is not how his choice of Palin might complicate his ability to use the "experience" issue or whether he will have to drop experience as an issue. It's not about the proper role of experience as an issue. It's not about experience at all. It's about honesty. The question should be whether McCain -- and all the other Republicans who have been going on for months about Obama's dangerous lack of foreign policy experience -- ever meant a word of it. And the answer is apparently not."

Now they are all crowing about changing the convention program because of the hurricane--it's about being Americans, they say. No one wants to see them partying while other Americans are suffering--of course this is more about Katrina and Bush's failures than about empathy with the victims of Gustav. The rhetoric has changed, but the partying will go on. Again, it's about honesty.