Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Let's Stop Talking About Palin

I've been mulling over lots of different thoughts since John McCain's announced his VP choice.

I thought at the time that it reflected a desperate lack of judgment on the part of Senator McCain and exposed some real control issues within his campaign. How, I asked myself, could they not even vet her? Why would they undercut the 'experience' theme they've been building for months? How could McCain choose someone he'd only spoken to once or twice?

And then when the details began to emerge, from her daughter's pregnancy to the state trooper firing scandal to the bridge to nowhere lies, I thought to myself that McCain's gambit had totally backfired. Here he's elevated this total political novice without fully vetting and it's backfiring right in his face.

And maybe it did sort of happen like that. McCain's advisers and GOP stakeholders knew he needed to shore up the evangelical base not just if he was going to have a chance at bridging the so-called 'enthusiasm gap' but also because there would be no grassroots basis for 2010 or 2012 if McCain had had his way and picked Joe Lieberman. They convinced John McCain to go with Palin, assuring him that the positive aspects of a ratings draw for the ticket would far outweigh whatever gaffes she may commit or bad positions she'd previously taken.

Democrats and especially a lot of online progressive news sites walked into the unintentional trap. Immediately there were many questions about Sarah Palin's ultraconservative ideology, her poor performance as Mayor of Wasilla, and the trooper scandal. There were even more questions about what the selection said about McCain's judgment, whether or not he himself had a basic familiarity with Governor Palin, whether or not he'd known about the family preganancy. I'm not sure that I 100% buy the argument that the 'unintentional trap' was the typical GOP wagon-circling and push back against the elite media though certainly this was the party response. I don't think that the left is entirely caught off guard by that tactic anymore, as it had certainly been employed at various junctures by the McCain camp already.

Rather, the 'unintetional trap' that Democrats stepped into was Palin's personality.

The GOP push back against the 'liberal media' was in full swing in the days before Palin's acceptance speech but it did not necessarily yield any kind of response from the public. I anecdotally remember seeing many numbers indicating fairly disparate national favorability numbers for Palin, shockingly low considering that VP picks are supposed to poll positively right after their selection. As I recall, roughly 38% of respondents indicated that Palin had made them more likely to vote for McCain and pretty much the same number indicated that Palin made them less likely to vote for McCain.

Once Palin flashed that smile on stage in St. Paul and told her story, her place on the ticket was solidified beyond a doubt. The two most often quoted lines from that speech illustrate what her selection was really all about. Can you remember anything she said she'd do politically? No. You remember the line about hockey moms and lipstick, you remember the brilliantly delivered cutesy line about putting the state jet on EBay, you remember all the small town America nonsense. The whole speech was about imagery, identity, personality, and relate-ability.

Then, when it was kicked back to the Left's pool of tv pundit talent or to the progressive blogosphere, the pointed questions kept being asked - and it looked like this 'everywoman' was being bullied around on her first day at school - never mind that she's been lying about her record.

And since the convention wrapped, criticism of Palin continues dominate the headlines, even on progressive blogs. I know she's being isolated from the press and being briefed over and over again because she has little command of the issues Americans face in this election. I know she's lying about the bridge to nowhere.

But who cares?

Is it really more important to highlight Palin's lies than it is to contrast McCain's blank speech to Obama's extremely detailed agenda? Shouldn't we be highlighting the ridiculousness of McCain's calls for change?

Palin brings ratings. And she brings them to a Republican ticket that was really struggling to generate any kind of interest or excitement.

This Dick Polman piece, which is excellent, examines this theme by critiquing the poor political sense of those clamoring for the use of Hillary Clinton as a foil to Palin:

The Clintons may be exasperating figures to roughly half the Democratic electorate, but they do know a few things about politics and how to play the game. The McCain people have made a politically smart move by picking Palin - her lack of preparedness is another matter entirely - because they have created buzz for the Republican ticket, allowing the GOP to focus on personality and thus distract voters from the Republican policy record of the past eight years. If Hillary was to take on Palin directly, in a battle for the sisterhood, she would be fighting dumb, on the new Republican turf - personality versus personality - while failing to focus voters on the Republican policy record of the past eight years.

And consider this: If Hillary went mano a mano with Palin, how long would it take for this kind of imagery - courtesy of James Bond cinema - to be the talk of the nation?

Wolfson, wise to the imperatives of popular culture, and the allure of so-called "cat fights," put it this way: "For whatever reasons, editors and news executives are convinced that two women fighting sells magazines and attracts eyeballs. You can imagine the thinking. If Angelina Jolie vs Jennifer Aniston, and Britney Spears vs Christina Aguilera sell copies, what could be better than Hillary Clinton vs Sarak Palin...(That) might drive ratings and sell magazines, but it wouldn't be good for the Democratic party or the cause of women's rights."

You see, the McCain camp became wise to the fact that Americans are really bored by John McCain. They realized that McCain's understated public persona, awkward mannerisms, inability to fluidly read a teleprompter, and increasingly common 'senior moments' really exacerbated the age issue and turned off voters on the right and in the middle. The McCain camp is happy to have Palin bump McCain's TV time. Her appearance alone makes her inherently better able to connect with average Americans than John McCain. Notice that Palin and McCain continue to stump in tandem. It may be, as many on the Left snicker, because Palin needs more prepping before she's allowed to do her own photo ops recite her own talking points. However, it is much more probable that the McCain campaign strategists are purposefully working to obscure Americans' views of the ticket by putting Palin out front. It ensures that media coverage of any McCain campaign speech is as much coverage of Palin's barbs as it is anything the actual nominee says. It ensures that Biden and Obama will continue to be pressed to respond to this Palin quote or that Palin quote. It ensures that the progressive blogosphere continues to rip apart all of her misstatements and distortions.

She sells ad shares, she drives web traffic. Palin is getting pretty good mileage out of the same one-liners written for her convention speech whereas Barack Obama's extremely detailed, persuasive, and historic argument for progressive change has generally failed to generate residual coverage.

It's what the McCain camp is banking on.

I actually think the Obama campaign has really played this pretty good. Neither Biden nor Obama have really mentioned Palin by name and continue to hammer away at McCain's proposals that expand upon the Bush administration's disastrous policies.

Unfortunately, however, the progressive netroots is being called to action to clamor on and on about the media's refusal to report accurately on Palin. That's a mistake, it's not something worth leveraging progressive muscle for.

Call out her lies, highlight her distortions, and continue to uncover her insufficient qualifications but stop making her the focal point of the response to the McCain campaign. She should be treated as though she is completely irrelevant because she's essentially being put forth to distract Americans from the actual proposals of the GOP platform and of the McCain campaign.

It's also extremely frustrating as a resident of New Orleans. So much energy went into going after Sarah Palin, who is still essentially a NOBODY, that few bothered to question the 'gee Louisiana really dodged a bullet with Gustav' narrative that allowed the GOP to go back to partying in Minnesota while a huge swath of America barely hangs on.


E.J. said...

You've spent a couple seconds mulling this over, haven't you? LOL

Huck said...

This makes some sense at one level; but it is not as simple a task as you lay out. Ignoring Palin has its costs too. You say: Palin? So what. That kind of attitude gives a different kind of ammunition that plays into another conservative narrative: the elitist dismissiveness of the every woman. If we want to stoke the resentments of those who do take the Palin personality cult seriously, then we simply pass over her and claim her as insignificant. Given that, I think Obama and Biden staying above the fray, but the liberal blogosphere and punditocracy going gangbusters after her is appropriate. Sure, it has its own risks. But the key is to find a way to balance these out effectively while not giving one narrative a chance to dominate the other.

Pistolette said...

As an independent I don't see any indiscretions or lies on the part of Palin that stand out any more than those of Biden, Obama, and McCain (or any other former presidential candidate). I think the liberal arguments against her are flimsy, picky, and sound horribly desperate. Perhaps you're right, you guys should stop talking about her - because every time I look up the left-wing's accusations on fact check sites and they turn out to be false, I start to distrust them even more.

Carmen said...

Pistolette, I'll buy you a drink when McCain/Palin wins. ;)