04 September 2008

Palin reaction

I generally try to divorce my sentiments as a card-carrying member of the John McCain Fan Club from my analysis of the passing political scene. At times, what might be chuckle-inducing for a Republican -- for instance, any time Ann Coulter opens her mouth -- might have disastrous political consequences. But mindful of this, it's awfully hard to give Sarah Palin's introduction to the American electorate last night anything other than a rave review. She blasted herself onto the national political scene in a remarkable way.

A few observations:

First: It was extraordinarily stupid for the media -- and Obama's team -- to set such low expectations for her speech. Palin's opening was a bit clunky, but once she settled in, she proved to be an exceptionally strong orator.

Second: John McCain has found his attack dog, and an effective one at that. Palin went after Obama in an almost caustic manner. At times, her speech sounded like it could have been given by Rush Limbaugh.

Third: Despite her myriad attacks on the Changemaker and his laughably thin record, Palin has "it" -- the trait that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were blessed with and that Al Gore and Mitt Romney were not. "It" is an uncanny ability to remain likable and seem genuinely affable no matter the circumstances and no matter what one says. It's difficult to put a finger on exactly what it is about Palin that gives her such an aura of likability -- perhaps it's because of her Down Syndrome infant, her humble upbringing, her outsider status, her engaging way of speaking, or yes, her gender. "It" allows her to launch grenades at the other side with a confident smile. "It" also makes hitting her back without looking like the bad guy extraordinarily difficult. No other candidate under consideration for the vice presidency on either side has this.

Fourth: Point 3 is a huge problem for Obama and Biden. Through all her attacks on Obama's record and rhetoric, she remained likable. Could, say, Tom Ridge have pulled this off? Probably not. It's going to be very, very difficult for Team Hope to respond in kind. They will be strongly tempted to let Biden off the leash on Oct. 2 -- for the reasons illustrated above, that's not a good idea.

Fifth: Mike Huckabee and Romney -- two of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination in 2012 and perhaps the two most self-interested politicians on the planet -- heard the death knell for their chances at the 2012 Republican convention last night. Even if McCain should lose in November, a star has been born. Palin is a base-pleaser -- certainly further right than McCain himself -- with an intriguing record of reform, and she induced a raucous response from the convention crowd. Even if Team Maverick collapses down the stretch, Palin will blow Mitt and Huck away in 2012.

And finally: Although voters vote for the person on the top of the ticket, perhaps the VP brings something less tangible than a mere electoral advantage to the table. Palin's reformist record, outsider status and maverick streak have brought that same element of McCain's record back to the forefront. It's perhaps his best quality, and what endeared him to so many on both sides of the aisle in 2000. As the establishment candidate during this election cycle, McCain has struggled to recapture his maverick status as Obama attempts to tie him to Bush. But make no mistake: It's there.

Ridge would have enhanced McCain's national security credentials. Romney would have enhanced his "rich white guy" status. But Palin illuminates that side of McCain that derives perverse pleasure from kicking the base in the teeth when he thinks they're wrong. In an election where his biggest challenge is distancing himself from an unpopular incumbent, the maverick message cannot be lost. In recapturing this mantle, it allows McCain to not only distance himself from Bush, but also draw attention to Obama's nonexistent record of reaching across the aisle.

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