Saturday, August 30, 2008

Basic Instinct

Now that the left blogosphere has thoroughly embarrassed itself with its collective hissy fit over the selection of Gov. Palin for Republican VP, perhaps we can look at what McCain has actually done. Too much of the noise is about Palin herself and not about what McCain has achieved in the context of the campaign.

The Democratic campaign has been woefully short on both ideological and strategic analysis of political conditions, bouyed by the false belief that the Republican brand was DOA this year (Don't we always think that?) and that the Democratic nominee would be a shoe in for President. The selection of Palin exposes the weakness of the Democrats by demonstrating what McCain is doing to strengthen his own hand. I point the reader to Ed Kilgore (post 1, post 2), BTD (post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4) and Chicago Dyke for clear eyed analyses of the political impact of McCain's move. Here is my own.

First and foremost, this is not about Democrats. This is about tensions and contests within the Republican Party. McCain is handling his intra-party conflicts better than Obama. There is doubt about where to take the party after the failures of Gingrich and Bush/Cheney, and McCain is answering them. With the choice of this person rather than another established party insider, McCain has expanded the leadership options. This was done at the risk of of ticking off the party establishment (the establishment that has been pissing on him since 2000), but will please many rank and file.

Second, McCain is protecting himself from electoral defections from his own side. His least committed constituents are cultural conservatives. These are the people who would go with Bob Barr. With Palin on the ticket, McCain neutralizes that effect, probably changing what would have been a higher attrition level compared to Obama's vis-a-vis Naderite/Green voters to a lower one.

Third, he reinforces his own "maverick" brand. This has always been more image than reality, but what foundations it does have are rooted in his reputation for abruptly taking an unconventional stand and for fighting party corruption. (That a member of the Keating 5 should become a poster child for clean government simply shows that political irony is dead, but that's another topic.) Superficially, Palin is a "daring" choice, and her reputation as someone who will buck the party elite will play well. Appearance and narrative trump reality in this case, as they always have.

But it leads to the fourth point, which is that Palin's political identity as someone who will challenge the party will resonate outside of conservative circles with right-leaning Independents. Too many people yammering on about Independent voters make the mistake in thinking that they are independent and not just slightly disaffected voters who will vote pretty consistently for Democrats or Republicans unless given something very enticing to shift their preferences. More often, these voters will sit out an electoral round if they have doubts about their habitual choice. This is the problem that McCain has been facing because the maverick brand was weak and because Ron Paul pulled a lot of people into his camp and they have not returned. Palin brings the myth of the frontier, clean government credentials, a libertarian streak, and sex appeal. This is an image that will sell to right-leaning independents.

Fifth, this choice strengthens McCain's claim to be a change agent, which co-opts the Obama theme. McCain was relentlessly pushing this message in his announcement and it has been taken up by operatives throughout the party. We're maverick outsiders who will be both conservative in our values and aggressive in shaking up DC business as usual politics. Unlike the theme of healing divisions, though, McCain promises to open up a can of whupass. Like sex, violence sells.

Sixth, McCain capitalizes on the debates about experience. What he has done is actually quite sophisticated. It is very short sighted to say that he can't use the "lacks experience" argument against Obama anymore now that he has chosen Palin. Wrong. He now can say he put Palin in a position that is appropriate to her political talents and promise, but which takes account of her actual experience. For the Left to argue that she is unqualifed for VP when her political career is extremely similar to Obama's is political suicide. If the Obamacans honestly cannot understand that Obama and Palin have comparable political biographies, then they are too stupid to be let out in public without a keeper.

To take up my previous posts about how Republicans will focus on Affirmative Action, not race, in this election, choosing Palin allows the Republicans to present an argument that they are not racist or sexist, but that they oppose unjustified promotions above your pay grade. The history of questionable election victories surrounding Obama will become an issue.

Seventh, this is an historic VP choice for Republicans, and they will not see it as tokenism because of Palin's credibility within her party. If it also picks up swing (or revenge) votes among Democrat women, it's icing on the cake, but do not for a second underestimate the effect this has with conservative women.

With the Palin choice, McCain is talking to his base and securing that support. I also think he is trying to establish a political coalition apart from Bush-Rove-Cheney. It is a risky choice because the results, good or bad, will be dramatic, but it is the right kind of political choice. McCain has clarified his ideological stance with his current and potential supporters which empowers him in the GE campaign.

McCain's choice also shines a spotlight on the potentially fatal weakness of the Obama campaign, which was to take the Democratic base for granted. Women voters won't go Republican because of Roe v. Wade and blue collar voters won't go Republican because the economy blows chunks and the Republican candidates are old rich guys who can't "connect". The Obama campaign treated the Clinton Democrat constituency and our champions with disdain and hostility, right down to the roll call vote. "You have no where else to go," is what we were told week after week when we said, no, stupid, it's not race, its the economy. It's the lack of partisan committment. It's the refusal to address our concerns about the social safety net. The magnanimity of the Clintons and their unshakable loyalty to the party, fully on display at the convention, threw the petty selfishness and insecurity of the Obamacans into relief.

The general election is now in doubt for the Democrats because Obama has spent most of a year kicking the Clinton Democrats, the base of the party, to the curb. His refusal to even consider our candidate for the ticket shows he puts his emotional satisfaction ahead of the political needs of the party. The campaign's first reaction to Palin was an attack on the person, exactly in the mode of their hateful attacks on Hillary - sexist, disdainful, mocking, and crude. This doesn't speak to the Democratic base and it only riles up the Republicans to defend their candidate.

If the contest is about ideology and the damage the Republicans have done to the nation, the Dems have a chance. If it is about personal qualifications and penney-ante scandals, Democrats lose.

It's all about the basics.



YAB said...

Two things about the nomination struck me. First, there are more experienced women in the Republican Party (Christine Todd Wittman comes to mind). Second, Palin is as right as right can be re social issues (abortion, oil, gay marriage, etc.).

I understand that some Republicans express concern about McCain's commitment to Conservative values, but I've seen no evidence of that so far in his campaign. If anything, he has tacked to the right. And would they really vote for Obama? No way. I mean, aren't they basically in the same position that the Dem. leadership assume Dem. women are in? No place else to go?

This is going to be a close election. McCain needs Independents and some Dems. And his economic credentials are nil, so Hillary's blue-collar supporters aren't going to be thrilled with him, however elitist Obama comes across.

In order to get center or left-of-center Independents and Dems who do not want to vote for Obama, wouldn't it have made more sense to pick a woman (which, I must admit, I had been hoping he would have the courage to do, but didn't think he would in the end) who was at least a little to the left of center (or maybe just simply in the middle)?

As it is, Dems like me are still stuck with the dilemma. Obama is clearly unqualified to be President, and the Democratic Party has strayed so far from what I want it to be, that I feel voting against Obama is the only way I have of sending a message. But McCain/Palin would head an Administration and, yes, probably seat 3 Supreme Court Justices, as far from my beliefs (social, political, economic) as it is possible to get.

I can't remember when I have been so utterly depressed by a Presidential choice.

p.s. I almost choked when I saw Feinstein arguing, re Palin, that the VP had to ready to be Commander-in-Chief. You're right, on the issue of competence, Palin's appointment does create a problem for Obama but a stronger, more qualified woman would have created an even bigger problem. Biden will probably chew Palin to pieces in a VP debate, esp. since the questions will be skewed to show his foreign policy experience and her lack of it.

R. S. Martin said...

One thing I would add is that Palin has intense appeal to religious conservatives who are fed up with the way the plutocratic wing of the GOP has treated them. Many of them feel that the big-business party poobahs view them as a bunch of stupid hicks who are only good for their votes. They feel used and abused by the party, and things like the Jack Abramoff-Ralph Reed scandal, where their good will was egregiously exploited, send them into a fury. They don't like the efforts of the plutocrats to turn the U.S. into a third-world country any more than the rest of us do. They're looking for a leader who shares their social views and who looks out for the interests of working people. Palin, who made her name standing up to the big-business corruption of government, and who pointedly states that her job as Alaska's governor is to balance the interests of business with the interests of the people, is well-positioned to become their champion in the GOP.

She's a huge potential threat to long-term Democratic electoral goals as well. The party elite has this notion that the religious voters will come over once they start hurting enough to vote their economic interests. That gets the hell kicked out of it by someone like Palin. People like Howard Dean don't realize that religious-right voters will never vote for a Brahmin type like Obama or Kerry. They'll find candidates of their own who will speak to all of their interests. Palin may be turn out to be the first of them to make major headway nationally.

I think this is a political masterstroke by McCain. If all goes as I expect, Palin will shore up Indiana, Virgina, Missouri, and probably Ohio for the ticket. If she helps McCain take Pennsylvania as well--and those bitter guns & God voters may flock to him because of her--he could very well have this election sewn up.

hg said...

On target as always: This VP pick was the best political move that McCain could have possibly made at this stage of the game and as Chicago Dyke notes, we should fear the brain in the McCain campaign who came up with this masterstroke.

I completely agree with your conclusion: Obama's campaign needs extend the policy attack that Obama *finally* made in his nomination speech--tie the McCain ticket to the horrific right-wing policies and failures of the last 8 years. But if they keep up with this "experience" attack and frat-boy leering, it will boomerang on them in the ways that you and the other bloggers cite.

Moreover, I might argue that running Wassilla City Hall for 8 years was just as much of a challenge (if not more) as being an Illinois state legislator who voted lockstep with corrupt Democratic machine. And then there's her work on the Alaska Gas and Oil Commission and her resignation in protest of the GOP corruption--another concrete thing that adds her "reformer" aura.

Don't get me wrong, Palin stands for the complete opposite of everything I believe in and I won't vote for her and McCain. But if Obama's campaign resorts to the same Neanderthal attacks that they launched on Hillary (in fact, some of the stuff already being thrown at Palin looks worse) then I may just leave the U.S. presidential candidate line on my ballot blank.

Mike J. said...

That's a great post (as usual). McCain's astuteness in picking Palin stands in stark contrast with Obama's pick of Biden. I still can't quite figure out what the rationale was. Obama's best weapon was his anti-Iraq war stance. Picking Biden, who voted for AUMF and was a vocal supporter of the war, amounts to unilateral disarmament. Does this mean Obama campaign has decided not to run on Iraq war as an issue? It's hard to imagine how they can do it with Biden on the ticket.

The fact that Biden was picked after months of criticizing Hillary's AUMF vote naturally raises the question why was Hillary not good enough for the position. If it was because her last name was Clinton, it amounts to a public repudiation of the Clinton legacy. If it was because she was a woman, it makes the Democrats look like a party of sexists now that Sarah Palin is McCain's running mate (and you just know the a-list blogger boyz won't be able to help themselves...). And if it was because of personal pettiness and immaturity, that makes for an uncomfortable comparison with the current inhabitant of the White House.

orionATL said...

this is a very solid, informative (in the same way paul krugman is informative) analysis.

i especially appreciated the concise rejection of the "experience" argument.

to whit:

"Sixth, McCain capitalizes on the debates about experience. What he has done is actually quite sophisticated. It is very short sighted to say that he can't use the "lacks experience" argument against Obama anymore now that he has chosen Palin. Wrong. He now can say he put Palin in a position that is appropriate to her political talents and promise, but which takes account of her actual experience. For the Left to argue that she is unqualified for VP when her political career is extremely similar to Obama's is political suicide."

the nytimes wrote up the silly "experience" argument this way: peter baker:

" Senator John McCain spent the summer arguing that a 40-something candidate with four years in major office and no significant foreign policy experience was not ready to be president.

And then on Friday he picked as his running mate a 40-something candidate with two years in major office and no significant foreign policy experience. making such an unabashed bid for supporters of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, he risked undercutting his central case against Senator Barack Obama."

bob somerby should enjoy this one.

bornagaindem said...

always spot on. I flatter myself that I made similar observations but you clearly said it better

can't take this new democratic party much longer and if the repugs stand up for their woman candidate against the feminist smears by the MSM I will know I am in the twilight zone.