This article appeared in the Sunday Herald, on September 7, 2008.
The Republican convention ended, as it always does, with red, white and blue balloons drifting down into an ecstatic white crowd. The few African-American delegates, less than 2% of the party, barely splashed colour on the canvas. At the Democratic event, in Denver, a badge showed Barack Obama and Martin Luther King side by side. In Saint Paul, men wore Ronald Reagan t-shirts declaring “my heroes have always been cowboys.” The image of a young John McCain standing in front of his jet fighter was a distilled manifesto.
By accepting the nomination in an old-fashioned setting, McCain nailed Democratic elitism and hubris without saying a word. There were no “styrofoam Greek columns” that his running mate Sarah Palin mocked so effectively in her speech – just a huge, fluttering flag and two wholesome American families standing in front of it. The signs read Service, The Maverick, Country First and Peace. “We will win this election,” he shouted.
It was a traditional finale to a traditional Republican convention. All week we were presented with McCain the headstrong independent thinker, Palin the fearless reformer, but the dividing lines being drawn were awfully familiar.
McCain sang the conservative creed. “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them,” he said. “My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them.” With regard to foreign policy, he noted that Iran sponsors terrorism and Russia’s leaders have rejected democracy, before concluding “we face many threats in this dangerous world, but I’m not afraid of them. I’m prepared for them.”
He spoke of “tough times” and “dark days” at home, but offered few specific remedies beyond drilling new oil wells offshore and building nuclear power plants. Finally, he told the tale of astonishing heroism that defines him, recounting that after five years of imprisonment and torture “I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”
It was a companion piece to Palin’s speech the night before. She described her family life, the small town she grew up in and the people she knows best. “They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars,” she said. “They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”
She hit Obama where it hurts, with withering sarcasm. “What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back the waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger, take more of your money, give you more orders from Washington.”
It was brilliantly executed and delivered with brio, but it was essentially the same identity politics that has served Republicans well since Reagan’s presidency. The confidence that it would work again was tangible. When the faithful chanted her name, they were applauding the next Vice President of the United States.
Republicans recognise this is a change election and will not cede ownership of the word lightly. Every other speaker reminded us that McCain-Palin is “the real ticket for change”. Former Governor Mitt Romney declared “we need change all right – change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington.” It was as if Al Gore had won eight years ago and McCain was running in opposition.
A video montage reclaimed Abraham Lincoln – Obama’s favourite ex-President – as a Republican. Every mention of Reagan provoked spontaneous applause. George H.W. Bush was honoured on Tuesday, but his son’s appearance by satellite link the same night fell flat. I met plenty of delegates who argued that history will judge George Bush more kindly than his contemporaries have, but most agreed it was better for his party that he stayed away.
In theory, McCain’s service to his country was the dominant narrative. But although we heard testimonies to his unpredictable, indefatigable character every few minutes, he was utterly upstaged by Palin. From the moment she announced that her daughter Bristol was pregnant, she was the undisputed star of the show.
I interviewed around eighty delegates. With one exception, they told me Palin’s selection had energised the base and guaranteed victory in November. “She’s a woman with five children, she’s been a mayor, a Governor. Do you think there’s anything she can’t handle?” asked Fay Williamson, from Virginia. “You have never seen such enthusiasm since Reagan was President,” said Larry Helminiak, from Maryland. “The conservatives are beside themselves with glee.”
The thousands of bored journalists, who had been circling around an empty convention hall, were scarcely less happy. Palin was eight stories in one – inspirational, controversial and troubling. She was under investigation for firing a state employee who refused to sack her sister’s ex-husband. She once asked the town librarian if she could ban books. She supported Alaska’s bridge to nowhere, symbol of government wastefulness, before she rejected it, and requested millions of dollars in earmarks before she opposed them.
McCain’s camp issued a blanket denial, never acknowledging that there is a difference between legitimate enquiry and unwarranted speculation. They were aided by some extremely irresponsible journalism. Bloggers suggested that Palin’s youngest child, Trig, was actually her grandchild and that she had covered up her daughter’s first pregnancy. The National Enquirer accused her of having an affair. Worse, a few senior figures at respected media organisations said foolish things which implied that motherhood would make it more difficult for her to govern.
CNN’s morning news anchor, John Roberts, wondered “how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?” McCain later cancelled an interview with the network, citing another exchange, in which his spokesman was asked repeatedly to name one decision Palin had taken as commander of Alaska’s National Guard.
On the day of her speech, the Republican National Committee called a press conference to “highlight Governor Sarah Palin’s executive experience.” Its agenda was clear from the very first line, delivered by former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift. “We are here,” she said, “to call attention to the outrageous smear campaign against… the most popular Governor in the United States.”
Six women spoke. McCain’s senior adviser Carly Fiorina said that “the Republican party will not stand by while Sarah Palin is subjected to sexist attacks.” Former Treasurer Rosario Marin began “I am delighted to be here, but I am also absolutely outraged… incensed, offended and insulted.” Just in case anyone had failed to appreciate her depth of feeling, she closed with “shame on them, shame on all of them.”
Hillary Clinton was invoked often, as the victim of a similar injustice during the primaries. I asked if Fiorina would concede that, at times, Republicans have been guilty of sexist remarks against Clinton. “I would not concede that,” she replied. “If you have any facts you can bring to me, I’d be happy to respond. This press conference is now over.”
In 1998, at a fundraiser, McCain told a joke that American newspapers described as “vile” but declined to print. It went like this: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” Reno was Attorney General at the time. Chelsea was 18 years old. Last November, on the campaign trail in South Carolina, while Hillary was still favourite to win the Democratic nomination, a woman asked McCain “how do we beat the bitch?” After laughing along with the crowd for thirty seconds, he said “that’s an excellent question”.
When Clinton complained of sexist treatment in March, Palin told a conference in Los Angeles that “when I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, ‘Man, that doesn’t do us any good, women in politics, or women in general.”
Both parties have concluded that women will decide this election. In Denver, Democrats sent a parade of female Senators to the lectern to note that McCain does not support equal pay or abortion rights. Republicans are wooing the constituency of their old mortal enemy, hoping that with Hillary sidelined, any woman will do. How sincerely she campaigns for Obama may well be decisive. She starts in Florida tomorrow.
Palin’s inexperience has been written about as a potential liability, when it is in fact a key aspect of her appeal. It reinforces McCain’s nonconformist image and ensures Obama’s own thin credentials will not be forgotten. Most importantly, it enables Republicans to set up a simple “with us or against us” choice. Knowing she would be vetted by the press, they circled the wagons, protesting that the middle American she represents is under threat from liberal snobs. Whether she can run the country or not is an irrelevance. Her job is to win.
Unlike Obama, Biden or McCain, Palin lives a middle-class life in a small town. She is evidently tough and capable. But she is also about as far from independent and moderate as it gets. She says abortion should be illegal, even in cases of rape and incest, favours the teaching of creationism in public schools and doesn’t believe in global warming.
Half way through Palin’s speech, a delegate named David Sprecace sat down beside me. “This is the cheerleading section – whoo” he said, wearily. I asked him if he was less than thrilled with McCain’s choice. “I might be,” he offered. “I’m worried he’s alienating the people that we need to attract. One third of the country is going to get very excited. But one third isn’t enough to win an election.”
It was the only pessimism I heard all week. At the two conventions, I made a point of asking delegates if they expected their party to win. Democrats replied yes, we should win, because the economy is failing, the war is unpopular, the kids are motivated and so on.
Tony Welch, a former press secretary to the Democratic National Committee, said “I believe we’re going to win, but who would guarantee it?” Robert Bell carried a green plastic periscope with Kerry-Edwards and Gore-Lieberman stickers. “Hopefully this year,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m very confident.”
Republicans are blessed with certainty. Three women from Indiana answered “absolutely” in unison. A Texan, Tom Holmsley, reckoned “the tide will go along with good old American values.” New Yorker Frank Adomo said “without a doubt I expect to win. All the polls are fraudulent because people don’t tell the truth. They’re afraid to say they’re not going to vote for a black man.”
Partisan rhetoric seeps through your pores. In Denver, I became convinced the election was Obama’s to lose. In Saint Paul, the potent simplicity of the Republican message persuaded me otherwise. The best advice came from George Buffett, an 80-year-old whose first campaign was the 1952 Republican primary. “I’ve learned enough in politics not to expect things, because I was expecting Bob Taft to beat Eisenhower,” he told me. “Two months, a lot could happen, a stupid remark from either candidate could do his side in.”