Tuesday, September 23, 2008

palin's touch

Your correspondent was privileged to attend the McCain-Palin rally in Media PA yesterday, although not nearly so privileged as his 13-year son, who--having long since learned to ignore his father in political situations--clawed his way to the rope line and managed to shake hands with the Great One herself, constituting plainly the most important event of his life and one likely to be remembered when the rest of us are long forgotten. I myself was left with reflected glory in the 10th or 12th row, but even this sufficed for a few observations:

1. Palin--You have to see her in person to see how thoroughly she dominates McCain and the remainder of his entourage. The bus arrives and several tired-looking grey suits ascend the portable stage, of whom we eventually discern that one is John McCain, one Joe Lieberman, one Arlen Specter (Pa's senior senator), and one Lindsey Graham, another veteran and McCain's best Senate buddy. Then a tall woman with long hair and a bright red jacket, looking like she just got out of the Health Club, ascends the stage with the best-looking husband and two of the best-looking kids this side of Fairbanks and the crowd goes absolutely wild. Cries of "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah?" and "You Tell 'Em Girl!" ring out over the (excessively dramatic) theme music. Mentions of her name attract at least three times the applause as her running mate. If one parachuted in from another planet, one would assume that the world was run by attractive women in bright-colored clothing while a race of short grey-haired men had been reduced to some kind of retainer status. When Palin sat down and McCain, the nominal candidate, started to speak at least three people turned away and started walking home. "I've heard enough," one man said, and headed for the exit.

2. The Crowd.--The crowd was larger and more enthusiastic than McCain's gatherings in the spring and summer, reflecting the Palin factor and perhaps the closeness to the election. But it remained a rather narrow grouping, almost entirely white and Christian, and heavily middle-to-lower middle class in origin. At times it could be nasty, as when one former Clinton supporter gave a talk about Obama's lack of patriotism and other American values (I found it interesting that it was a Democrat who spoke this way). But for the most part it was good natured and weirdly apolitical in nature, having the feel of a pep rally or religious revival rather than a political event, a feeling that the sea of red shirts [the attendees were asked to wear red] and regular musical intervals contributed to further. In fairness, Obama crowds that I have seen were just as narrow (albeit in the opposite direction), and the small group of protesters were even more sophomoric than the main attendees. Still I had the feeling of a group of regulars turning out rather than new voters being reached: the latter may well vote for McCain, but they weren't at the rally.

3. The Substance.--While the symbolism remains conservative (military bikers, references to Ronald Reagan, "God Bless the USA") it is striking how populist the campaign has become. McCain, in the most notable part of his speech, called for limits on the Wall Street bailout and protecting Main Street ahead of Wall Street. Palin talked about transparency and putting the Treasury Department online as she has apparently done in Alaska. I heard general references to low taxes but nothing specific about tax policy, spending reductions (other than earmarks), or new military programs, all of which would have been staples of Reagan- or even Bush-era conservative rhetoric. Part of this is no doubt strategic: the Republicans have decided to cast the election as action-vs.-rhetoric which requires that they too embrace the change mantle. Liberals will tell you that it is a case of moneyed interests posing as populists. But I had the opposite feeling: that an essentially right-wing populist movement effectively controls the party and is now posing as conservatives. Whether this is sufficient to win an election in the current climate is anyone's guess. But a lot more people remain culturally traditional than avant garde, and my guess is, whatever happens this year, the movement Palin and her supporters represent will grow stronger rather than weaker over the next ten years.


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