I misunderestimated Governor Palin in two respects. First, I expected her inexperience on a national stage would show through more in her coming-out speech. I don't need to add to the hours of tv commentary in noting that she handled herself, the crowd, the text, and her own story in a confident and, at times, quite appealing way. And while her introduction of Todd the First Dude, Track, Bristol, Willow, the adorable Piper and the baby Trig reminded me of Family Feud, I have to admit I'd probably be rooting for the Alaskans against the slightly more restrained (and outnumbered) Obama clan from Chicago.
But I also misunderstood the political role she would play, and to some extent that role changed in the last week of meltdown. I didn't think, as Chris Matthews did, that she was just a shiny object to wave in front of Hillary Clinton supporters. But I did think that she was picked because she was the closest thing available, even if it required jumping her to the head of the class, to the next wave of the Republican Party -- the Sam's Club Republicans who could combine social conservatism with an appreciation for the real needs of vulnerable working families. There was a tiny bit of that -- the talk about the First Dude being a union member and the promise to be an advocate for families with special needs children. (This is my least favorite trait in modern conservatism -- the carving out of a sympathetic exception for the single family need or health problem that you have personal experience with. When a man did it -- Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon -- I called it "Miss America Conservatism," in the sense that each Republican has his or her little platform issue -- in Smith's case, mental health funding, because of his son's suicide -- that shows their soft side, and then they go back to the demeaning pageant of cutting taxes and slashing Medicaid. The lesson in having a child with special needs is not "we need more attention for kids with special needs," it should be, "life hands out lots of difficult circumstances and lots of families need different kinds of help, so we're all in it together.")
But at any rate, that was a minor note of the speech. The major note was one of fierce, sarcastic, unrelenting partisanship, amped up, as Josh Marshall notes, by following immediately in the wake of Rudy Giuliani's ugly attack, delivered with the passion of a man who for much of his mayoralty had been held to account solely by "community organizers."
And so Palin's was not the face of the future GOP. It was the face of the Republican Party that got so carried away with itself that it impeached Bill Clinton. It was the face of the self-righteous, nasty party of Tom DeLay, John Boehner, Bill Frist, and George Allen. It was the face of Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, not the softer and superficially more accomodating tones of Ronald Reagan and, to be fair, the election-year George W. Bush.
This was exactly the face of the Republican Party that people have been voting against since at least 1998, when Democrats gained in congressional races amidst impeachment. It's certainly the face of the Republican Party that voters rejected in 2006, when they turned out Allen, Rick Santorum, DeLay, and others. And the fact of being a woman does not soften the partisan face; hard-partisan women like Linda Smith in Washington have had no more success outside of the reddest states than their male counterparts. (Which is why McCain had no pro-life Republican women with experience to select from.)
On top of the fact that Palin's retro approach has consistently failed, it also provides the perfect foil to Senator Obama's cross-partisan pitch. The challenge for Obama was to assimilate the Democratic nomination and a fundamentally progressive agenda with a cross-partisan, new politics tone and attitude. That required some cooperation from the Republicans -- he had to paint a picture in which they were partisans and he (and Biden, et al.) were able to get beyond that old partisanship. McCain, who had cornered the market on bipartisanship, made that move very, very difficult. So did Palin in her first presentation as a different kind of Republican last Friday and on Labor Day in Dayton. But the Palin we saw tonight is a perfect foil for Obama, allowing him to retain the cross-partisan, forward-looking vision, in contrast to the 90s-style, sarcastic partisanship exemplified in Governor Palin's speech.
It would be interesting to imagine the kind of speech that Palin might have given had she not been savaged for most of the week and needed to go on attack. I suspect it might have been one that did not quite lift the crowd out of their seats, but one that would have offered a much smaller target for the Democratic Party of the future.
-- Mark Schmitt
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