Wednesday, September 3, 2008

RNC Day 3: The gloves come off

People who bought those Intrade political futures contracts, placing bets on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin making a swift exit from the political scene, may be having buyers’ remorse right about now.

On Wednesday, like we said she probably would, Palin pulled off a stunning acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, the self-described pit bull with lipstick ripping into Sen. Barack Obama, using either a needle or a bludgeon to belittle the Democratic presidential contender.

For Palin, the day the gloves came off was also a day to make history as the first female contender on a Republican presidential ticket, and only the second such contender in American history.

Palin walked out on the stage of the Xcel Energy Center amid waves of applause, long, loud, up-from-the-abdomen enthusiastic, apparently for real. Apparently. But the longer it went on, the more a suspicion crept in. At first there was only a whiff on it … and then, a real sense of this thunderous ovation being just a little over the top for someone that most of the people in that hall had probably never heard of three or four months ago. The applause for President Bush didn’t last as long as run as deep.

If applause meters count, and they do, the Republicans anointed Sarah Palin as the next heir apparent. Palin, for her part, didn’t disappoint.

“Mr. Chairman, delegates, and fellow citizens: I am honored to be considered for the nomination for vice president of the United States.

“I accept the call to help our nominee for president to serve and defend America.

“I accept the challenge of a tough fight in this election against confident opponents at a crucial hour for our country.”

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Giving props to the one who brought her to the party — “Our nominee for president is a true profile in courage, and people like that are hard to come by,” she said of McCain — she then started in on the opposition.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities," she said of Obama, buying into the pamphleteer-and-storefronts stereotype of a community organizer — tidily overlooking Obama’s role in 1992 as the director of Project Vote!, which registered 150,000 new voters in Chicago, or his role (from 1985 to 1988) as a director of a faith-based Chicago organization whose accomplishments under Obama’s watch included a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization.

“We've all heard his dramatic speeches before devoted followers,” she said. “And there is much to like and admire about our opponent. But listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state Senate.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin dutifully outlined her own public service resume, with all the right populist touches. “I came to office promising major ethics reform, to end the culture of self-dealing. And today, that ethics reform is the law.

“While I was at it, I got rid of a few things in the governor's office that I didn't believe our citizens should have to pay for. That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay.

“I also drive myself to work. And I thought we could muddle through without the governor's personal chef — although I've got to admit that sometimes my kids sure miss her.”

Ironically enough, some of Palin’s hugely partisan address played into the hands of Team Obama. “Politics isn't just a game of clashing parties and competing interests,” she said. “The right reason is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it,” she said, in a statement that could have come — and probably did — from the Obama philosophical playbook.

Palin repeated the bedrock personal narrative of McCain, doing it with conviction, but still reinforcing the mythos we’ve known for years. The Maverick thing.

“Sen. McCain's record of actual achievement and reform helps explain why so many special interests, lobbyists and comfortable committee chairmen in Congress have fought the prospect of a McCain presidency — from the primary election of 2000 to this very day. Our nominee doesn't run with the Washington herd,” she said of McCain, now serving his 21st year in the United States Senate.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment,” she said, and she’s damn well right about that. That’s why she’s on the ticket in the first place. “Permanent political establishment”? That’s the job for the man at the top of the ticket. They can’t both be change agents. And in spite of the hearty reception for Palin by the conservative base represented at the convention — the true believers — the historically more tepid reception for McCain by the same true believers suggests that Palin would be the nominee if do-overs were an option in presidential politics.

Trouble is, for the McCain campaign, the people still don’t know enough about her to know if she’s really a change agent, or just a continuation of the Republican social and political hardline we’ve known for years. And the general election is just two months away.

Sarah Palin is said to have energized the conservative base, but that’s not where the votes are. The voters, the passion, the turnout comes after a dialogue with the whole nation, not just the faithful in the hall. And Palin will hit the road to find them. She’s about to start political boot camp, and now the gloves come off for her as well. There’s the so-called Troopergate scandal. And reports of her enthusiastic embrace of earmarks when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The emerging drama of a challenging family life.

◊ ◊ ◊

And now it’s come to light that Sarah Palin may have her own problem with being in the wrong place and the wrong time, because of words spoken at her fundamentalist church on Aug. 17. Michael Fox, blogging at Open Salon, reported that David Brickner, the leader of Jews for Jesus, spoke at the Wasilla Bible Church, Sarah Palin's fundamentalist congregation.

With Palin sitting in the congregation, Brickner called terrorist attacks on Israelis as God's "judgment of unbelief" on Jews who have not converted to Christianity. 
"Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television," Brickner said. "It's very real.

Brickner also told the congregation that "Israel is an example of what all humanity has been saying to God since the beginning of time, shaking its fists at the heavens and saying 'You'll not rule over us'."

A spokesman for the McCain campaign, Michael Goldfarb, told Jewish groups that Palin didn’t know Brickner would speak that day and didn’t share his views in any case. “Governor Palin does not share the views he expressed, and she and her family would not have been sitting in the pews of this church for the last seven years if his remarks were even remotely typical,” Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail published by Andrew Sullivan in

An unfair attempt at guilt by association? Almost certainly. Barack Obama knows a thing or two about that, courtesy of the attention paid to two or three minutes of improvident speech by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — comments that Obama apparently didn’t even witness firsthand.

But that’s the new league that Sarah Palin is playing in, one in which facts are often at the mercy of public perception. As she assumes her historic role in American politics, she is about to discover a new intensity of exposure, a renewed scrutiny of her past and her positions, and a harder evaluation of how they dovetail, or don’t dovetail, with the American people she would help to lead in the most challenging, difficult time in this nation’s history.

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” the writer Finley Peter Dunne once wrote. It ain’t shooting moose in Alaska, either.
Image credit: T toes, republished under Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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