There’s only one story in the US going into the first post-convention week, and it is of course Sarah Palin, the most explosive candidate for Vice-President since — well, since forever. Not even the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro by Walter Mondale so energised an election. Ferraro’s nomination had been both a genuinely progressive move by the liberal campaigner Mondale, and a desperate attempt to gain any sort of traction in an election which Ronald Reagan would ultimately take with forty-nine states (Mondale retained his own, this one).
Ferraro’s candidacy had become muted before it began. A Democrat loss had always been highly likely, and the historic moment of a female major party candidate was tarnished when minor scandals regarding her tax records and the business dealings of her husband emerged. Just in case you remember 1984 as a feminist era, one glance back at the letters pages of the newspapers from the time – with pages of comments arguing that a woman per se is not suitable to be President — should disabuse anyone. Even the tax scandal itself was a product of a transitional period – Ferraro’s personal finances were tangled up with her husband’s, who was (mis)managaing them, in an arrangement that a professional couple — especially a political professional – would be far less likely to use today. And Ferraro herself had been a longtime political professional, from deep in Democrat territory of northern California. By the time of the election, certain defeat had taken the feel of a historic moment away.
Palin’s candidacy is different and exciting to people on so many levels, that it has, at least for the moment, overwhelmed all the questions that hang over her history as Alaska Governor and her views.
Top of the list of course is that she’s a woman, a fact which has overcome the asymmetry of the two tickets. Up till now we saw a face-off between a historical and a non-historical candidacy, a black candidate versus an old white guy. The sheer gravitational pull of historical change, even when questions hang over the candidate in question, is hard to beat — it has an attractive force all its own. The stunning fact of Palin’s candidacy is that, whoever wins, history will have been made, and the impact of that moment is now more associated with the announcement of the selection of Palin than it is with the primary victory of Barack Obama.
The second historical factor is that Palin has been “beamed up” from outside the ranks of political professionals of either party. Though she is more of an operator than the “holy innocent” spin on her biography suggests — anyone who’s a beauty queen, TV presenter and then politician has been pursuing the limelight for some time — there hasn’t been a candidate that I can think of from outside the usual political/legal establishment for, well for ever. It’s hardly a testament to the American system that this is achieved by the “dealer’s choice” process of picking a VP candidate, but there you are.
The third novelty is that she’s Alaskan, and though some Alaskans don’t want to be Americans — the Alaska Independence Party is one of the largest third parties in the country — the state actually embodies the last real example of the phenomenon that Americans see as central to their identity: the frontier. While the old west fills up with malls and sprawl, Alaska is still a place where you could die if didn’t plan a hunting trip sufficiently well. Its capital, Juneau, has no road access — you come in by boat or plane. Alaska, in that sense, is more American than America (the lower 48) is.
So even before there’s a consideration of her record, she’s a triple-threat player.
When you get to her record, her overall impact — for the moment — is only strengthened. Though there may well be ticking time bombs in it, its lineaments are attractive — hockey mom turned city councillor in frustration at official idiocy (in this case on sales tax) discovers she has a talent, becomes mayor, is initially drawn into the Alaska old boys’ network, blows the whistle on Republican corruption in the oil and gas commission on which she was given a seat, and storms into the governorship. Staying with the Alaska-is-America thing, her rise and rise repeats in its own small way, American revolutionary tradition — challenging the old hidebound corrupt authority with a few simple principles, etc.
The Democrats had sooner or later intended to trot out Abraham Lincoln as an example of someone who, with about the same executive experience as Barack Obama, went on to be a great President. Palin’s life trumps that ace — her smalltown frozen north life looks a lot more like old Abe than does Barack’s global journey. Any thoughts that she isn’t a sharp, quick-witted speaker and debater have been dispelled by the tapes of old debates from the 2006 Alaska governor race, that have been running on C-Span all weekend, in which she makes sharp work of quite a few of her hidebound opponents.
Finally of course there’s the family, which not only helps with the evangelical right, due to her taking a Down syndrome baby to term, but provides old John McC with an instant, surrogate, young first family — and let’s be brutally honest about this, a family that’s white. Last week, with the teen pregnancy thing and troopergate, the choice of Palin had bookies giving odds on her nomination. This week, she’s the focus of the campaign and much of its energy.
In response to this, the Democrats are facing some pretty hard yards. Having had Obama’s life and times in front of us for six months or more, we now feel like we’ve known him for ever, and the fact that the latter part of his biography is pretty conventional — law professor, state senator, senator — doesn’t stack up well against a woman who relaxes by shooting wolves from a helicopter. Suddenly the Obama/Biden ticket does seem like new establishment/old establishment duo, while the McCain-Palin ticket is like some demented retelling of Raoul Duke and the Samoan attorney on the road in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The Obama campaign, which is now offically the despair of anyone who invested any hope in them, lumbered in with a series of stupid attacks on her record and — unironically — her lack of experience. They now have to think fast, something which this lumbering group of hacks haven’t shown much aptitude for. How could they neutralise her, or turn her into a negative, at a time when their lead has leached away to nothing?
The obvious thing is that they’re going to have firstly, and with no holds barred, take Palin apart and send her back to Juneau into sixteen separate FedEx bags. There’s plenty to be going on with, but it means avoiding the messy fights about conservative hypocrisy on the teen pregnancy thing — which was in the culture wars taken as the gold standard of bad parenting until now — and focus simply on the policies of her party and her own social policies. After all, Palin could raise four kids on what was for many years a single-salary family, because her husband works as a unionised employee in a region and industry where the steelworkers run a de facto closed shop and stamp out scabbing forthrightly — yet Republican policy makes it practically impossible for 92% of private workers to gain that sort of representation.
Her 2007-8 budget for Alaska slashed health funding, education funding and school computer upgrades, but gave millions of dollars in grants for turf reconditioning on football fields — the fairly typical brain-dead Republican social underinvestment. After that they have to move on to her social policies and how out of step with the majority they are, her enthusiasm for a total abortion ban above all. Thirdly, Joe Biden has to crush her in the VP debates on foreign policy, and see if he he can simply run her out of the knowledge that GOP wonks are loading into her head at the moment — although it is highly possible that Palin will outfox the lumbering and prolix Biden.
Finally, the Obama team needs to do the most audacious thing of all — switch the game to portray itself as the stable responsible pair of hands, and the McCain-Palin ticket as the reckless crazies, with a parochial politician one cell mutation away from the nuculerr button. With all this done, they may just get lucky when the petty but tangled “troopergate” scandal is reported on three weeks before the election.
God knows if they have the will or the ability to do this, but they’re going to have to do something. History, whoever makes it, to the defeated may say alas, but oh … you know the rest.