Thursday, September 4, 2008

In the Cold Light of Morning, Two Analogies

It bears repeating just how difficult it is to evaluate a convention speech at the moment it is delivered. With the exceptions of only the most soaring and universally acclaimed, at one extreme, and the most sullen and confused-sounding, at the other, convention speeches almost always sound like qualified successes to the analysts expected to comment on them in real-time. "That was a genuinely terrific speech by fill-in-the-blank," so goes the line, "though it remains to be seen how it will play on Main Street."

This is no accident, of course: since 1968 and the advent of the modern primary season, the people who run these shows have had little to worry about other than ensuring that every event within them comes off looking slick and professional and, above all, convincing. When the first impression of a convention speech is bad, that means it was really, really bad. When the first impression of a speech is good but not an out-of-the-park home run, that often means that we don't really know what just happened. Generally speaking, it takes a day.

So it stands to reason that many of the instant analyses of Sarah Palin's speech last night--presumably including those posted in the smallest of small hours this morning by The Key Grip himself--would necessarily be broadly stroked, skewed in a favorable direction, and, above all, wrong. But here's the thing: there's an enormous difference between sleeping on a speech that was delivered by someone you know, and sleeping on a speech delivered by someone you don't. The person you know has not just your ear, but a chunk of your tribal (dare I say community?) authority, with which to continue speaking to you long after the speech has ended. Which is why Governor Palin's speech last night flunks a basic and most important test--that of matching the content of the remarks (all of whom were written by a Bush speechwriter, incidentally), with the specific moment in time in the speaker's career.

This idea of making sure that your authority matches your message is one that can at times be trifled with (viz, Mario Cuomo in 1984, of whom few people outside New York had ever heard), but the trouble is that one has to be Mario Cuomo to pull it off. Otherwise, the effect of speaking to people who don't yet know you in a tone of telling them what to think--especially if what you're telling them to think is negative--only succeeds in antagonizing them. Imagine for a moment that you have just been hired to work in a small town where not everyone likes the President of the local bank (because he's an idiot), and some people are even sick of listening to him, but, at the very least, everyone knows him and has known him for a long time. Now imagine that, in your first month on the job, you find yourself in a disagreement with that bank President and as a result of that disagreement have come to believe that he is a shameless self-promoter consisting of all flash and no substance.

Take it from someone who knows, the last thing you do, in that circumstance, is endeavor to impose your characterization of him on the townspeople. You just don't do that when you're the new kid; your chance is to make a first impression, and if you try to do that by speaking harshly of someone that folks already know, it triggers (ironically, in this case) a reaction to you as the other-ness, and to him as the inside member of the tribe. This is so powerful and so visceral an instinct in human nature that it may well be the product of some form of evolutionary reward: when the stranger shows up and speaks ill of the Chief, the best strategy is to shun the stranger. Indeed the potency of this village-outsider analogy may lie with its very irony, under the circumstances: Sarah Palin has managed to make the rest of us perceive Obama as one of us more effectively than he ever could.

What Governor Palin said last night to the crowd inside the hall could easily be reduced to, "You party faithful need not worry that John McCain and I will play it any less aggressive this fall than our successful predecessors." Surely that message, that very message, was the intended takeaway for the intended audience. But lest we forget, that building was half-empty: the country is trending blue these days and the Republican party has never in my lifetime seemed smaller and less cohesive than it does right now. And to the vast sea of self-described moderates, independents, and undecided voters, the one-sentence takeaway from last night's speech was something more like, "You don't know me from your local librarian, but I'm going to tell you why you should hate that guy who's been sitting pleasantly with you in your living-room for the last six months, anyway." And if that analysis is correct, then it's a grave tactical mistake.

Twice in as many weeks, now, it would seem that the Republicans have actually managed to head-fake themselves: first by somehow believing their own maliciously sown PUMA voters, left over from a patchwork of open primaries, were actually working-class Democrats prepared to defect if given the chance of voting for a woman, and now by believing that the rest of the country shares their own clubhouse view of Barack Obama as a scary and exotic "other-ness," when in fact that view is held these days by only the most polarized (if not openly racist) of their own party faithful. To the rest of the country--especially after last Thursday--Barack Obama is a known quantity with whom many of us are positively thrilled these days, and whom most of us could comfortably settle for in November, even if we disagree with him.

The irony here is that it was the Republicans who first sensed this dynamic, back in 2004, of a large swathe of the electorate choosing its candidate based on the so-called "living room test": that in the end, John Kerry would have been just too damp, too sullen, too dreary to listen to for six minutes a night on the evening news, for four solid years. Okay, with the benefit of hindsight that argument seems pretty unfortunate, but never mind: who, I wonder, passes the living room test this morning, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin? And bear in mind as you weigh the question that it is Palin who just got done speaking to us.

Palin had her zinger lines, surely, and no one should pity her for her ability to stand up for herself--even if only in the capacity of reading someone else's words. As has been noted already in this column it is more than a little unfortunate that she has chosen to remain stubbornly counter-factual about the bridge to nowhere, and it is even more unfortunate that she feels comfortable characterizing the last week of news cycles as a clear-cut case of being "mugged by the media," but the court of public opinion will have to weigh the content-vs.-image aspects of these two features of her speech and come to its own verdict, since reasoned consideration of such matters would've given us Michael Dukakis in the White House, sparing us from essentially all of the unholy mess to follow. Cry "cynic" if you must, but it just may be that the persuadable voters left out there don't want to read a blow-by-blow of Palin's true track-record on earmarks before making their decision about whom to vote for.

The real problem isn't that she didn't make points. She did. The line about Obama not speaking of "us" the same way in Scranton as he does in San Francisco was classic Republican fire-stoking and, odious though it may be, it worked. Or at least it would have--if she had known when to quit. And here we come to the second of the big analogies for the morning postmortem on the Palin speech, this one (sorry!) from the world of sports. It happens that, in Baseball, up-and-coming players occasionally make a very specific mistake of a sort that proves unusually costly for their team: facing the crisis of being down by a single run in the late innings, a little-known player with dreams of being the hero smacks a hard fastball into the outfield for a hit, the start of the rally that could yet save the whole game.

But because that player is little-known, and because that player knows that the opportunity is there to define herself in a single, rocket-like burst of heroism for the team, that player decides not to stop safely at second base, but instead to run as hard as she can in the hope of making it all the way to third. If she makes it, then she really will be the hero, standing there on third and waiting for a routine fly-out by her teammate to tag-up and score the tying run. Only she doesn't make it, because her ambition to be the hero has at this moment far outstripped her abilities, and instead she is tagged out, ending her team's chances once and for all.

By severely overplaying her anti-Obama hand (and by the way, did the theme of the Republican convention actually manage to go, in a single 24 hour swing, from "service," on Tuesday, to "you don't want a community organizer," on Wednesday?), Ms. Palin proved that she has the resolve and the ambition not just to make solid contact with the baseball, but to dig as hard as anyone around the base-pads for her team. Too bad for the team, someone forgot to tell her that the guy coming up to bat behind her is no slouch-hitter himself, and second base would've done just fine. Too bad for them, she was thrown-out trying to reach third.

There is clearly much campaigning left to be done. McCain himself will have his turn this evening -- assuming the media feeding frenzy over Governor Palin's many scandals will afford a long enough surcease for him to even take the stage (and by the way, the latest is the story that Palin had a long-standing extramarital affair with her husband's business partner that may not quite be over yet, as will be reported in the Monday edition of the National Enquirer) -- but it would seem, to this author at least, that something has shifted in the electoral dynamic over the past few days. Something that says all of this red meat isn't going to sway voters the same ways it has in elections past. Something that says the Republicans will have to do more to salvage this election than wave the bloody shirt, one more time. Presumably, if they had that something else to play, they'd have played it by now.

Which leaves the rest of us to wonder when the last time was that a party actually lost this much momentum, this much media charm -- this much support -- during the week of its own convention.

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


isuyankee said...

I'd be interested to hear a comparison of Obama vs. McCain on economic policy. Everyone understands the idea that Obama tax policy favors the middle class and McCain's favors wealthier Americans. I am more interested in the bigger question of fiscal policy and the effect on the deficit/debt. My Republican friends are quick to point out that Obama is a typical "tax and spend liberal". My retort is usually to compare the Clinton fiscal discipline to the Bush economic mess. But looking to the future what about Obama and McCain?

Dave O'Gorman said...

You might be onto something with the fiscal restraint by default that we had under Clinton, but my friends on the other side of the aisle will surely retort that Clinton's restraint was involuntary, and orchestrated by Newt Gingerich.

One thing is clear, even now: John McCain has no intention of cutting spending on the programs he prefers, most notably the military. He talks a good line about controlling spending, but his tenure on the budget committee was, shall we say, not very distinguished.