OBAMA'S CHALLENGE: ANYTHING BUT THE ECONOMY, STUPID.

Founding Editor Bob Kuttner is joining us on TAPPED with commentary about his new book, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, and on economic issues in the campaign.

So now we understand what John McCain’s handlers were up to: Intensify the culture wars, and once again use cultural symbols as substitutes for policies. In particular, use Hockey Mom Sarah Palin to change the subject from why regular Americans are hurting in the pocketbook to why Palin is a more regular American than Barack Obama. Will the Democrats change it back? Whether they do will decide the election.

Last night, we learned once again how Republicans keep managing to turn seemingly weak candidates and weaker economic circumstances into instruments of political victory: They are superb at creating master narratives that make Democrats, liberals, and “the media” into the cultural enemies of ordinary people.

Those who view this as an overly narrow and outmoded Rovian tactic of throwing raw (moose) meat at the conservative base miss the point. The strategy of energizing the base is leveraged into using cultural symbols to reach out to everyone else who is frustrated with how little they get back from the economy and the government--not just hard core right-to-life women in Missouri and Oklahoma, but downwardly mobile white men in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In this strategy, every little Democratic misstep is inflated into a cultural parable, while gaping holes in the Republican story are neatly sidestepped. The master narrative of Obama as an unqualified elitist will be reinforced again and again this fall, as it was last night with Palin lines like these:

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

“I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening. We prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.”

(If you think that Palin came up with these zingers herself, I have a bridge-to-nowhere to sell you.)

Republicans consistently play this kind of hardball. And, as effective as the Democratic convention was, it did not quite have as consistent a master narrative. Only at peak moments did the Democrats rise the necessary shaming of McCain, as in John Kerry’s superbly indignant speech, Joe Biden’s talk of the kitchen-table frustrations of regular Americans, and a few of Obama’s better lines.

If the Republican master strategists can use Sarah Palin as Everywoman, just as they successfully used George W. Bush as the aw-shucks champion of regular people, they could turn the trick with a trained monkey.

Will they succeed yet again? That depends on two factors.

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