Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Up-Side? We Don't Need no STINKING Up-Side!

It is Wednesday morning of the week of the Republican National Convention, and the question that seems most pertinent (and most inclusive) in the world of politics at this hour is, what the hell is everyone thinking? It's always a good question--indeed it's quite often a better question than political experts give it credit for--but it seems never to have been a better question than it is right now.

For starters, there is preposterous weight that has been brought down upon the shoulders of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin with her speech this evening that, in effect, is expected by the entire Republican establishment to rescue John McCain's decision-making skills, and vindicate him in the court of public opinion. There is even this photograph of her in preparation, intended to convey the basic story of rehearsal and building excitement but in which, frankly, it appears as though Ms. Palin is only too keenly aware of the depths she is out of, in this role. What was McCain thinking, putting her in such an untenable situation? If she delivers a stirring speech that has the audience standing on seat cushions, how will that story go over in the press--that she's allayed the fears everyone has?

Perhaps. Except that fear is one of the few emotions that media analysts can't dispel with a wave of their 50,000-watt hand, and people of both parties really are insecure about Sarah Palin. Telling them all, in the five minutes after her speech, that she did splendidly and that we can all go back to thinking about anything else (or in this column's case, everything else), simply isn't going to make the story go away. For one thing, even the most un-astute and loyal member of the audience will understand that the speech was written for her. If she delivers it well, she will have managed to prove that she is able to read--something that not even The Key Grip is prepared to question of her. Yet.

But that's not the question of the hour. The question of the hour is, what if she doesn't do well? Then the wobbly McCain camp will have a fresh round of incoming to swat down with the Patriot Missiles that are Carly Fiorina and Susan Molinari (both of whom would've made better choices for Vice President, by the way), and precious bounce-building energy will once again be squandered with damage control. As the pressure on Ms. Palin intensifies, the up-side of the decision to select her seems increasingly difficult to find, leaving some of us--over the past twelve hours or so--experiencing an emotion not a million miles away from pity. Which is quite possibly the last thing that she or, by association, any professionally minded and self-evidently accomplished working mother needs. It is one of the ironies of this circus that is least-often written about, that McCain's decision may ultimately be viewed as a devastating setback for the equality of women, and if that happens Ms. Palin will have had precious little to do with it.

And yet, somehow--unfathomably--the McCain inner circle seems this morning to have competition for the mantle of actions without up-side. McCain's long-time friend and colleague in the Senate, Joe Lieberman, delivered a speech that was at once far more critical of Barack Obama, and far less effective, than he'd promised. Instead of speaking of his kinship with a true friend, and how ties of this sort can (dare we say, should?) transcend entrenched ideology, instead of highlighting moments in our past when such transcendence advanced the cause of good governance, instead of praising both candidates' patriotism and longing for a day when politicians could be proud to answer the call of service by running for high office, instead of soaring rhetoric that would bolster his comrade-in-intractable-war and leave his bridges intact, the Connecticut Democrat Turned Independent squandered a controversial appearance with nasty innuendo about his former party's candidates and ideals, and took time out of the middle of the speech to, somehow, praise both Governor Palin and Bill Clinton.

Most of the analysis in the speech's immediate aftermath ranged from muted exception to stupefied disbelief. One analyst gave the speech a C-minus, which may be the lowest grade a convention speech is capable of getting, given the choreographed emotional structure of the event and its inevitable impact on even smart peoples' best judgments. What was Lieberman thinking by, first, repudiating his vow to Democrats that the content of his speech would all be pro-McCain, then praising a woman with whom he shares nothing whatsoever in common, and then, just to make a night of it, standing before a packed hall of self-selected Republican extremists to praise Bill Clinton? Who exactly was his target audience, the Carville/Matlin household???

Then there are the protesters. And here the judgment gets even more baffling, if not easier to understand with the convenient excuse of garden-variety, disenfranchised rage. If we've learned nothing else from the Florida recount, it's that you don't take a disheartened, disorganized right-wing base and give them something to feel besieged about, even figuratively. You certainly don't besiege them around the perimeter of their building.

The analysts missed this one, as badly as they've missed any story about this entire election cycle: While they were voicing-over the images of teargas and percussion grenades with grim thoughts about what "scary television" it was making, Joe-Not-Sure-About-Sarah-Palin was sitting at home with a beer in his hand, thinking that the hairy youths fulminating the protest are about to be put in charge of the Department of the Interior, unless he himself gets up from his dented couch and does something about it. For all the unresolved feelings people on the far right may have about McCain, with or without Governor Palin, their feelings about the protest youth are as unresolved as the question of what happens next when you touch a gas-soaked bonfire with a lit match.

And still the role call of actions-without-upside carries on: An hour before Lieberman was committing ritual sepuku on a sixty-foot stage, there was the baffling spectacle of Fred Thompson, gaining for himself a grand-total of positively nothing on God's green earth, by delivering the very sort of stirring, base-rallying, pitch-perfect Republican oratory, precisely a year after it would have done him any good in his own campaign for President. Some experienced media analyst might have had the graciousness to explain to him that, should the speech come off as well as he probably expected it to, this was how it would be received and that Thompson himself would look all the more oafish and lazy than he already did, in the process. I might have told him this, come to that.

By the way, who's bright idea was it to schedule the Republican convention immediately after the Democratic one? It is a little-known but often very important fact in American politics that the incumbent party gets to choose its convention dates after the challengers have chosen theirs. Typically (indeed, always?) the incumbent party chooses to have its convention second, getting a "last licks" vibe that has in the past often carried the momentum of that party all the way to repeat victory. This time around, some genius deep in the bowels of the Republican echo chamber decided that the way to answer the threat of two weeks of Olympics hysteria and a week of Olympics-habit-capitalizing Democratic speeches... was by immediately following the Democrats with another week of speeches, with no pause between for the viewing audience to recharge their carrying capacities for bullshit.

The argument would seem to have been to cancel-out the Democratic bounce, but on closer inspection the effect of such a bizarre scheduling decision would seem at best to be neutral, since the second party always cancels-out the first party's bounce, anyway. At worst, a suddenly short-summered and television-fatigued viewing audience may well simply tune the whole thing out--spurred by the added impetus to turn respectfully away from the spectacle of a staggered and gravely weakened McCain candidacy, not to mention the dampening effects of that indescribably ham-handed and television-unfriendly telethon that the Republicans tried to make out of their awkward Monday. It is reasonable to assume, at the very least, that this scheduling decision will cost McCain half of whatever ratings differential his acceptance speech will surley suffer, compared to that of Senator Obama last Thursday.

And then there is Barack Obama himself, and this story of a recent, privately arranged meeting with Bill Ayers of Fox News. At the meeting--which in and of itself seems an expenditure of energy with precious little room for constructive outcome--Obama assailed Ayers for the especially sharp-edged partisanship and fear-mongering with which the Democrats' campaign was being covered on Ayers' network. Ayers, reportedly unruffled at the prospect of being ripped into by a man who may soon be President, implacably suggested that Senator Obama could improve his reception at Fox (as it were) by affording the network more access. And here's the thing: instead of leaping to his feet in un-contained outrage at the suggestion, instead of assailing Ayers for the very impunity of insinuating that Obama's coverage on Fox was Obama's fault and not Fox's, the Senator instead calmly and contemplatively agreed that, this Thursday, he would appear in person... ON THE O'REILLY FACTOR.

Throughout the summer and now into early autumn, the Obama campaign has been nothing if not disciplined. They've known exactly what they wanted to do, even when analysts of all stripes and seniorities have wondered out loud if they are fumbling away their advantage. They've rolled out contrast ads at the moment of their maximum effectiveness, handled the Clintons in a manner that seemed excessively conciliatory at the time, maybe even weak (anybody out there still think so?) and they've stubbornly resisted the siren-call temptation to belittle their own principles by belittling Sarah Palin--a feat of political expediency far beyond the capacities of The Key Grip, in case you haven't noticed.

But with this move--this one move--the entire house could well come tumbling down, from Obama's recently found initiative over the agenda, to Obama's recently found ability to tamp the suggestions that his "other-ness" is scary and insufficiently explained, to Obama's recently found ability to appear as Presidential in the eyes of persuadable voters as he is sometimes accused of having acted for well over a year.

Two or three pointed interruptions from O'Reilly, two or three aggressively personal and nasty questions, two or three untenable boxes for Mr. Obama to find himself in (who'd like the over on my five-minute prediction for the first use of the term PAY GRADE, for exampe?), and the Democratic candidate could well emerge from the experience as a bicycle-riding version of John Kerry: weak, mealy mouthed, equivocal, temperamental, and lacking in substance. Clearly, if a thirty-eight year old schoolteacher in Gainesville Florida knows this, Mr. O'Reilly knows it just as well. With his commitment to Mr. Ayers, Senator Obama has handed O'Reilly the fate of the 2008 Presidential election to do with as he pleases. And that elusive up-side? Ask yourself: how exactly does the story go over the next day at Fox, even on O'Reilly's own show, if Obama makes an infant out of its host and debates circles around his facile bombast? Gracious concession of defeat???

At all events on this eerily quiet Wednesday morning (dare it be called, the calm before a storm?) there would seem to be precious little of the Machiavellian expediency to which we've all grown so accustomed in recent election cycles. And make no mistake, its absence has made for some high drama already, just as surely it will make for more. Obama will say one thing that O'Reilly can air, over and over, every night until November fourth, and Palin will say one thing that Democrats can air, over and over, every night until November fourth. As for which side would consider itself lucky to take that trade, we shall all have to wait and see precisely what the sound-bites in question end up being.

In either case, There Will Be Drama.

But with the country in the kind of mess that it is now, this author at least is inclined to wonder if high drama is exactly what any of us need, just at the moment.

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

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