Initially, we figured John McCain’s people sniffed on dry Rocky Mountain bait last week, eager to catch “disaffected” Clinton voters. It would have been a two-for-one scratch game, energize their base while snapping at the Democratic base and taking some Independents. And, yes, Sarah Palin is the “let´s take it back” culture-shock to the culture-shock of a potential black president.
On first glance, it seemed clumsy. Then, Mrs. Palin appeared to take some celebrity air out of the electoral room, and Mr. Obama´s camp silently struggling to recalibrate. There are built-in advantages: she´s virtually unknown, she´s the “reformer” novice and, arguably, an authentic “outsider” eager to scrape with the “Washington establishment.” We can´t sleep on the plasticity of this running mate — she said it herself in the lipstick degree of separation between a “hockey mom and a pit bull.”
After sifting through a year´s worth of gab on experience, Mr. McCain ran off his own course, in some ways defying his famously maverick instinct by appeasing the right´s flavor of the week. The Palin decision just didn´t make much sense; partisans struggling to justify it and her short stint as a state executive made even less sense. Perhaps she could push, as overseer of the Alaskan tundra, the call for domestic drilling, a hot and bubbly injection of wedge issue to get the body politic feeling Republican again. Still: posing the argument that a hockey mom, one-time mayor of 6,700, who guts moose is somewhat more qualified than the combined experience of an Obama-Biden ticket … that just about stretched it to a Daily Show script coming to life.
Watching that night filled with hooks and one-line jabs, we´re forced to first ask: What does John McCain get out of this?
So, he makes the base a bit more giddy, a sense that the right can feel him if they can´t trust him outright. But, our sense is that the Arizona senator may not know what he´s getting himself into on the post-haste. When Mrs. Palin picks on senators with experience deficits, she´s also blowing up the spot of her boss´ thin executive resume. If experience matters, then what does the nominee do? The paradigm has shifted, now. Experience is booted in favor of a passion for anti-elitist reform. The Republican base loves it, Democrats should be concerned. Get that base energized enough and it could gobble up any possible Obama gains on Nov. 4.
Still, in these uncertain times over the economy, climate change and geopolitical crisis, we expect a bit more discriminating American electorate in 2008. Or, so we hope. Since Mrs. Palin lacks the traditional public humility of a running mate, opting for an unprecedented spotlight, we expect Joe Biden to take his gloves off — since it´s like that. The openings are wide open. We don´t know much about the two-year governor of a sparsely populated state. No indepth interviews. No real substance beyond the waves and talking point zingers. While most wade through economic hard times, she talks biography as if credit crunches, stock market hits, high grocery bills and gas pump thefts don´t exist. Perhaps, on that note, Palin could inflame the left about as much as she energizes the right.
We can´t firmly say that Republicans have made a senseless rolling of the dice, a backfiring triple flip of offended female voters, pro-choice activists and young voters still uncounted. That all said, we await more substance from the journalistic front line — where Mrs. Palin stands on critical issues remains hidden beneath the tabloid mystique of an Alaskan Brady Bunch. Through all the beauty queen sarcasm and teeth sucking pageantry of a comedy jam in St. Paul, there´s little meat on the economic policy bone. Instead, Republicans offer only coded contrast, a “he´s not one of us” rejoinder to typical banter about putting “Country First” as if the brother doesn´t.
Albeit a rather large and traditionally well-organized fraction, the right only represents one slice of the American electoral pie. But, it´s the win-at-all-cost slice with the cherry on top. Clearly, they dig the subtly bigoted sucker punches on “community organizers” and giggly one-liners poking fun at what they don´t say: He´s the “uppity” nominee. But, does it resonate with the rest of the American electorate? We thought the stakes were much higher than that.
Ultimately, Republicans are offering old wine in a new bottle. Here´s the 2008 presidential election in a nutshell: small-town America vs. urban America; main street vs. Martin Luther King boulevard. Welcome to the 21st century culture war. Why not? It´s worked before.
Peter C. Groff, president of the Colorado Senate, is founding executive director of the University of Denver’s Center for African American Policy and founding publisher of Blackpolicy.org. Charles D. Ellison is senior fellow at the center and chief editor of Blackpolicy.org. They host the radio show “Blackpolicy.org.”