McCain's Palin Gambit: Are Americans Weary of the Culture Wars?
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After Sarah Palin's acceptance of her party's nomination to the GOP ticket, the pundits couldn't stop praising her speech as "red meat" for the Republican base. If that was considered a red meat speech, why am I left feeling so undernourished? It was almost entirely devoid of policy substance and focused instead on character and personality.
This was not an oversight. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis has already clearly announced his strategy for the rest of the campaign: "This election is not about issues. ... This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." In other words, they are going back to the culture war well for more buckets of slime. This kind of red meat, however, offers little protein and suffers from the proverbial Chinese food complaint: An hour later you're hungry again, for something more substantive.
The culture war strategy tends to get better traction when voters are relatively content and prosperous. It's another matter when people realize the treasury has been looted by Republican cronies; their family members have been sent off to a pointless war; their homes are about to be foreclosed; they can't afford the gas to look for a new job; and hurricanes amplified by global warming are backed up across the Atlantic like the landing pattern at O'Hare. At that point, hope is more filling and satisfying than sarcasm and bitterness. When your country is going down the drain, Obama's "happy talk" trumps McCain's (and Karl Rove's) "silly season." Palin's convention afterglow was more of a sugar rush that will wear off quickly than it was a hearty meal that could sustain the party through November.
The McCain-Palin strategists know that their core voters relate to personalities better than policies. They want this election fought over "Access Hollywood" personality-style reporting rather than wonky PBS snoozefests because Americans tend to have more opinions about celebrity "character and misbehavior" than about dry policy details. This is a double-edged sword, however. If Palin is going to attack Obama on personality and character, then she exposes herself and her family to the same scrutiny. Nothing Palin said in her speech will make up for the fact that she wasn't properly "vetted." Given all the political land mines that litter her personal narrative, it seems as if she was "scouted" for the "Jerry Springer Show" rather than vetted for a presidential race. One can imagine the viral videos that will come out of the next "SNL" episode after Tina Fey picks over this buffet of rich plotlines. The inconvenient truths behind Palin's life story are a comedy writer's dream come true -- what the military calls "a target-rich environment." If it's true that nearly everyone has a water-cooler opinion about celebrity scandals, then McCain's early use of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to attack Obama may yet come back to haunt his running mate.
It's no wonder that the McCain campaign declared that any media reporting on Palin's background should be off limits because it's "sexist" and that the liberal media are "out to destroy her." They cannot quarantine her family and history forever, however, if they are also using them for campaign talking points and photo opportunities. Hence, the devastating "Daily Show" segment on sexism and double standards that aired after her speech should be the first of many hypocrisy fact-checks this season. The facts they turned up are too glaring and funny not to go viral on the Internet and seep into mainstream media coverage. After a few weeks of late-night comedy routines, Palin's convention bounce could land her in a deep crater.
Playing the culture war card has worked for Republicans in the past (and it's the only viable card they have left to play), but to do it through an untested vehicle like Palin is much riskier than doing it through a veteran politico like Mike Huckabee or even Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Moreover, there is a very real danger of culture war weariness in the electorate. Hating liberals won't keep the bank from foreclosing on your home, secure health care for your family or get the kids through college. What worked in the 1990s isn't going to work forever as a new generation of post-baby boom voters come of age. The quasi-fictional Murphy Brown vs. Dan Quayle controversy of the 1988 campaign seems like a quaint museum relic today. Younger voters aren't invested in the cultural and political schisms of the 1960s generation.
The "older" generation remembers the political bruising Bill Clinton received over gays in the military. The reptilian part of our brains learned the lesson of "fire ... burn ... bad ... avoid," but we tend to forget that today's recruits were literally in diapers when that debate blew up in Clinton's face. This generation grew up with "Will & Grace" and "Seinfeld" (not that there's anything wrong with that), and they simply can't see what the fuss was about. The old culture war memes about sex and drugs have a limited generational shelf life; hence the search for new "anger points" like immigration or latte-sipping elitists. A potential danger for the Republican Party is the alienation of the next generation of young voters who view the culture war brand as archaic, silly and embarrassing among their peers. A short-term boost by appealing to baby boomer culture could be devastating for the party brand in the long run.
It's one thing to rehearse a speechwriter's text over and over and over again (with the big words spelled out phonetically), but when Palin next surfaces to attack on the campaign trail, she will be exposed to a barrage of unscripted questions from reporters. The inconvenient facts that should have been caught during vetting will catch up to her very quickly. It's probably no accident that they kept the speech light on facts and policy because so much of this terrain is completely new to her. If Palin gets facts, policies, countries or world leaders mixed up, then she has the potential of becoming a Jean Schmidt-style gaffe-bomb just waiting explode over and over again. Attacking her opponents with a scripted zinger may come naturally to her, but if she swings and misses through an unscripted attack, then it only amplifies her own shortcomings. Last night, she was the tightly scripted Road Runner. Next week she could go back to being Wile E. Coyote. The campaign would be foolish to let her out to attack unless it is in a very tightly controlled situation. After all, loose lips sink ships, and that's not helpful when the campaign is trying to rebrand her as a potential commander in chief and reassure voters about John McCain's judgment.
If it's true that McCain had already called Joe Lieberman and offered him the VP slot only to be forced to back down by the religious right, then the Democrats will likely counterattack by arguing, "If Mr. Maverick can't stand up to the 'agents of intolerance' in his own party, then how will he stand up to 'Islamic terrorists'?" At that point, the Republican talking points about her great qualifications get tossed out the window and the judgment and character issues could boomerang back onto McCain.
By attacking the media for McCain's own scandalously inept vetting process, the campaign has made the proverbial mistake of picking a fight with an industry that buys its ink by the truckload. Palin did well in her speech partly because expectations were so very low. It tasted great to the base, but it wasn't terribly filling to the public. It's a long slog to November, and public scrutiny will only increase.
Sanho Tree is a fellow and director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.