Saturday, August 30, 2008

Get Me Someone Stupid Who Likes to Fish

The Republican machine in this country is nothing if not shrewd. Every four years they set everything else aside--from the core of their small-budget ideology, to basic civility, and back again--and figure out a way to win. Many of their wins are cynical to the point of being downright odious, and every four years this cynicism is splashed across the national stage with a curiously well-practiced and consistent formula consisting of equal parts cheerful derision and bully confidence.

I myself became a Democrat at 11:32PM on election night of 1988, after voting for George H. W. Bush, when I saw a news report depicting a fusillade of perhaps a hundred Bush campaign workers, standing shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalk leading to a polling place in New Mexico and holding signs that said, "ILLEGAL ALIENS AREN'T ALLOWED TO VOTE." Bad thing to do? Obviously. Odious? You betcha. So how many legal Hispanic citizens do you suppose Dukakis lost New Mexico by? And in how many other places around the country was the same bully nonsense going on, with the same, bully impunity?

But it would be easy to under-specify the brilliance of this particular page from the Newt Gingerich / Lee Atwater battle manual: The point isn't that the GHWB campaign did something dirty, and knew it was dirty when they were doing it. That's the way these charges often get left, and the smug-and-smarmy comeback from the other side is as predictable as levee failures in the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans: "Both sides do things that are dirty and know they're dirty when they do them, Dave."

Well.... Maybe. But what makes the Republican playbook so effective is that they never try anything dirty, cynical, or manipulative, if that particular antic isn't also guaranteed to resonate with an undecided voter who's too lazy to unwind the cynicism of what they did. This is something Republicans get, instinctively, that Democrats don't get because they can't bear the thought of it: most undecided voters are undecided not because they haven't thought about the pressing issues of the day; they're undecided because they don't want to think about the pressing issues of the day. They want to be shown a simple, one-sentence heuristic by which they can make their choice and be comfortable defending it at the lunch counter, and then they want to go back to thinking about, literally, everything else.

Please understand: this doesn't make them bad people. In a Democracy you don't actually have to pass a written test to cast your vote (indeed the point of a Democracy is rather the opposite). What it does make them, as Democrats have seen too many times before, is a group of people far more likely to make their choice of candidate based on second-best considerations of personal affinity and perceived empathy, rather than on administrative competence and better ideas. Administrative competence and better ideas are far, far, far harder to defend at the lunch counter than perceived empathy.

So file today's post under the heading of revision-and-extension of my previous reaction to Palin, if you must, but the Palin pick certainly carries with it the potential to saddle Obama and Biden with a very difficult dilemma--the dilemma that destroyed Al Gore: If Obama and Biden run straight at Ms. Palin, the risk of their aggressive response would lie in the very fact that it would be so easy. She is, first and foremost, a profoundly un-astute person, if not actually stupid. She has all the Presidential poise and aura of the runner-up in a PTA Treasurer's race. She holds a bachelor's degree with a major in Journalism and, as you surely know by now, she was the mayor of a town of fewer than 10,000 people less than two years ago. Other commentators have said that she's pretty. She isn't.

No less remarkable is what she adds by choice to this already considerable handicap: a cornucopia of extremist right-wing views that make Tom Delay look like the voice of reason in the Republican Party. She believes creation ought to be taught in public schools (right after the morning prayer to Jesus, of course), she thinks global warming exists but only as a natural part of the earth's history and not as a result of any human intervention in the climate, and she thinks abortion ought to be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. She believes gun ownership rights extend to all guns in all situations, and she regards the very idea of government with the kind of inbred distrust that only someone who doesn't remotely understand the functioning of a modern mixed-economy could possibly endeavor to defend. Set her positions out to any of the nation's remaining undecided voters, and they would agree with her on a grand-total of zero of them. That's what makes those voters undecided in the first place, after all.

On top of all of this baggage, there is also the dark cloud of one explicit scandal and the rampant innuendo of a second, far more juicy one. The explicit scandal, which it seems safe to presume will not amount to much, involves her alleged abuse of the power of her office in trying to get her brother-in-law fired from his job with the State Police, after he and Palin's sister began sinking into the nightmare of an acrimonious divorce. The Republican-controlled state legislature, receiving a full-bodied middle finger from the Governor's office when it requested a special prosecutor, has appropriated a small budget for a completely private investigation into the matter, but barring a major bombshell in the case it seems unlikely that such an off-the-books inquiry would ever carry the same cache in the court of public opinion as a more conventional one. Time will tell, but Palin would appear to be safe on this score.

The other scandal--which so far is completely unconfirmed and exists only as a swirling background hum of side-mouthed comment in the blogosphere--is that the now well-known, four month-old baby with Down's Syndrome that Palin gets so much credit for not aborting while still curled inside her womb, isn't actually hers. Among the tidbits that would seem to support this theory? That her fifteen year-old daughter was pulled from school for whole months at a time because she had mononucleosis, an ailment that rarely debilitates people for more than a few days at a time; that Palin's physique registered just the sorts of visual changes that would distinguish a carefully crafted lie from the real thing; and that Palin herself flew from Texas to Alaska "when her water broke," in order that the child could be born on Alaskan soil--a story which, even if it's true, should probably have resulted in criminal charges.

So Palin is, at all events, a deeply, deeply flawed candidate for Vice President. (And never mind the ways in which she changes the dynamic about Obama's readiness vs. McCain's age--which see, yesterday's post.) But as Gore learned in 2000, just because it would be easy to destroy one's opponent does not mean that this would be the best political strategy for dealing with him or especially with her.

Gore gets a lot of the blame for the last eight years in the minds of a lot of Democrats--and never mind the fact that he actually won--but a lot of that blame now seems unfair to me, since his choices were to alienate people by sounding teachy and elitist, or stoop to his opponent's level. Imagine, now, how narrow the maneuvering room would have been if, on top of Bush's militant ignorance on every major issue (he didn't even have a passport until after the general election campaign had already started), he had also been far more folksy and likable, a credible middle-class everyman, and, irony intended here, a woman. It would have been next to impossible to shine a bright enough light on the other candidate without making it impossible for Joe Undecided to empathize with Gore. The policy arguments would've been all correct (as they surely were), but the one-sentence takeaway would've been, even more than it already was, that the other choice was "someone who understands me," for which read, someone who doesn't talk down to me and whom I don't feel threatened by.

And make no mistake, the difficulty of that path was what decided the 2000 election: When Gore famously melted-down in the first debate, throwing the first-ever literal hissy fit on national television, it wasn't because he was bent on needlessly fumbling away his chance; it was because he and his advisers had carefully examined the situation and concluded that calling Bush stupid and/or wrong would cost even more votes than just standing there loosing oxygen through a slit in one side of his mouth.

Eight years later, Obama and Biden face precisely the same risk: run full-offense, straight at Palin, and Joe Everyman chooses a fellow hunter/fisherman over the nerdy policy wonks with the mean streaks who enjoy beating-up on unprepossessing women; run a "I can hunt and fish too" campaign (viz, John Kerry drinking Budweiser straight from the bottle while the Red Sox played in the World Series) and the conservative columnists will nail them to the wall on grounds of insincerity.

Worse still, the McCain/Palin message for the fall election cycle, at least the one that was unveiled yesterday, is the perfect storm of infuriatingly self-contradictory and perfectly appealing to the low-thought-value voters in the undecided middle: They're going to run on a -- get this! -- on a reform platform. And never mind that the reform people are craving is the result of the antics of members of McCain and Palin's own party. Specifically, never mind that fact because minding it won't do you any good: Joe Uncommitted doesn't want a civics lecture about party affiliation and incumbency, and he'll vote for McCain if you insist on stuffing that lecture down his throat. Already saddled with the dilemma of how to run at Palin without running over her, Obama/Biden must now also resolve the question of how to shine a bright light on the ridiculousness of Palin's reform message, without making anyone who momentarily bought into it feel ridiculous.

The good news in all of this is how simple the answer is--and it's something that Team Obama could do more of with that old guy we all seem to have forgotten at the top of the Republican ticket, too: You show these folks, in your commercials, speaking in their own words. Nobody held a gun to Palin's head and forced her to say that she opposed the "Bridge to Nowhere," after she'd already gone on the record publicly defending it at several different levels of government and in several different venues. Nobody held bamboo chutes up to Palin's fingernails and forced her to say on the record that the universe is six thousand years old and was created by God. Nobody laughed or belittled Palin into saying there's no such thing as global warming.

This was the profoundly effective third choice that escaped the brightest minds of the Gore campaign: You defeat a person like this, not by attacking them for what they've said, or by letting them get away with it. You defeat a person like this by showing Joe Undecided that this other person isn't like them at all. You defeat a person like this by giving Joe Undecided the simple-to-grasp, one-sentence cover that he needs at the lunch counter if he's expected to vote against someone who, in the venomously monstrous words of Kay Baily Hutchinson, "likes to do the things that Americans like to do." You defeat someone like this by stepping out of their way and letting them hang themselves on their own, hate-dappled ignorance. Al Gore didn't think he could do that without seeming shrill. John Kerry tried it and couldn't pull it off. If there's one single piece of good news in the last few rounds of the air campaign, it's that the Obama people are smart enough to see this third path, and take advantage of it.

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


isuyankee said...

Your last point is your best I think. Let the people judge her on the issues. If Democrats attack her in a condescending Michael Moore style way, it turns people off as elitist, liberal arrogance. A very intelligent conservative friend of mine from Kansas once said to me, "You just don't get it. Democrats lose out here because they give the impression that they look down on our values and the way we live our lives." The title of this post sums it all up. Attack McCain/Palin on Iraq and the economy period and stay away from the idea that Ms. Palin is unprepared or stupid. It will turn people off and that's a guarantee.

Anonymous said...

On the idea that Palin is unprepared how can anyone not ask whether she is or isn't?

Generally speaking a VP is not important, but this year McCain's VP is.

Let's say (god forbid) McCain dies or become incapacitated within the first year. Does anyone feel confident Palin would be an effective and knowledgeable President? This matters a lot because of McCain's age and bouts with cancer.

He could have picked a woman who was qualified rather than one who clearly isn't. Furthermore McCain could have chosen a qualified republican female as his running mate. The fact he didn't, the people I've spoken to, say it looks like an act of desperation.

Voters do not always vote on the issues. Many vote on their e_motions. I believe when a large portion of women voters learn about Palin's positions that will deter them from voting for her -- with the exception of the far right who believe abortion is their business and should be criminalized ....

All in all Obama is basically ignoring Palin for now.

Lastly speaking as a woman, if Palin cannot stand up to the heat she ought to get out of the race. Women are not as fragile as most think, however, I read Palin uses that defense when it is politically expedient.

Imagine what happens when she is confronted by Putin or al-Maliki or Sarkosy notwithstanding.

After having said she did not pay attention to Iraq because she was too busy does not instill confidence.