Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Palin's speech and the road ahead for the GOP

The Republican National Convention stopped deriding Barack Obama's rhetoric as uplifting but empty words just long enough to be treated to some uplifting but empty words of their own. Sarah Palin, who leads the current list of America's MILFiest Governors (take that Kathleen Sebelius!), spoke for 40 minutes and generally impressed the delegates and political cognoscenti. Why, exactly, escapes me. This was supposed to be Palin's coming out party to America, but as gallons of ink (real and virtual) have been spilled on her speech, we're still not sure what to expect from Palin.

She opens with a standard "nice-to-meet-you": Sarah Palin's a hockey mom; her kids are fighting in Iraq, so make sure to pay attention to the kids; but her 17-year old is pregnant, so please respect the kids' privacy. Palin first dips her toes into the pandering pond when she insists that her family is just like yours, that she understands how challenges become opportunities that become challenges again, and oh isn't life crazy when you're a post-feminist Republican! Did she mention her family---five kids, pregnant daughter, Downs-syndrome newborn, mom holding the highest elected office in her state---is just like yours? Take her word for it, because it is.

The first substance we hear in Palin speech is encoded: "Harry Truman." The invocation of 33rd President's name has drawn scant notice from the blogosphere and mainstream media, but it's worth understanding. Perhaps more than any other 20th-century president, Truman's foreign policy legacy is still a matter of some debate: he got America involved in the Korean War and probably averted a nuclear holocaust with his removal of the extremely popular Douglas MacArthur as commander of UN forces in Korea. Truman was long perceived on the right as wishy-washy on communism, another in a long line of big government liberals who screwed up America's great victory in World War II, but that perception has begun to change since the rise of neoconservatism. To a select corps of revisionist historians, Truman has become a proto-Dubya, a man with the vision and the courage to do what it took to keep America safe. Palin's use of Truman's name, then, was a shrewd choice: she burnished her historical credentials among people who lack enough of a grasp of history to challenge her assertions; she named a Democratic president in a clumsy attempt to show bipartisanship; and most importantly, she whispered in the ear of the GOP's neocon wing, "Don't worry---I'm really one of you. I'll say some things you won't like in the next 60 days, but trust me, I share your worldview."

"What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull?" Palin asks. "Lipstick," we're told. Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk! This, apparently, is what Republicans think jokes sound like.

Palin then does an admirable job of not making sense. She says that "the right reason [to go to Washington] is to challenge the status quo," which, last time I checked, is antithetical to the idea of conservatism---aren't the pinko commie hippies supposed to be the ones challenging the status quo? She insists that when she ran for mayor, she "didn't need focus groups," which actually makes sense when you consider the size of Wasilla, AK. And she pulls the Low Blow Heard 'Round the World: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except you have actual responsibilities." Buh-zing! Never mind that Palin didn't start out a small town mayor, or that Obama's been a large-state Senator for quite some time---Palin proved that she's not afraid to make a ham-fisted ad hominem attack against anyone who's trying to improve the town in which he lives.

And then came the out-and-out lies. She says that she said thanks but no thanks to "that bridge to nowhere," which simply doesn't square with the facts. She says that Obama's tax plan will "raise your taxes," which is true for about five percent of the American populace but patently false if the "you" in Palin's phrase refers to anyone in the other 95%. And her assertion that Alaska's North Slope has "lots of both [oil and gas]," while true, doesn't hold water in context---Palin was talking about expanding Alaskan drilling to help curb American dependence on foreign oil, but it would appear that she's unware of at least a) the North Slope's proven reserves, b) just how much oil America imports every day, or c) both.

Palin devotes some time attacking Obama, telling viewers that Obama's plan is "to make government bigger and take more of your money and give you more orders from Washington and reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world." Well when you put it that way... Palin makes sure not to specifically mention any of the meticulously laid-out plans the Obama campaign has posted to its website, mostly because doing so would undermine her earlier rhetorical device suggesting that Obama is light on specifics. She insists that "the world is not a community and it needs more than an organizer," which draws inexplicably raucuous applause considering that the woman who said it had just gone to great pains to describe herself as a "just-like-you" hockey mom. Interestingly, Sarah Palin tells us the world needs "more" than a community organizer, but won't be specific about what that "more" means.

Palin's nomination will be viewed as a watershed moment in this campaign, but not for the reasons that are so often bandied about (reaching out to women; youth; looks; pro-life; etc.). Her ascendancy will mark the moment when the GOP decided to push they message they want to push, regardless of inconvenient facts. The McCain campaign insists that Obama's tax plan will rob the middle class blind, while any serious policy analysis says quite the opposite; Palin says she's a reformer, so she must be, even if she's under ethics investigation in Alaska; McCain and Palin insist that they're the ones who will bring change to Washington, while McCain says the he was a "foot-soldier in the Reagan Revolution" and "voted with the President (Bush) 90% of the time." The critical question will be whether the American people are willing to devote five minutes of their day to letting Google debunk the GOP's increasingly outlandish claims.

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