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Brand First, Equivocate Later: The Message of Denver and the Importance of Defining McCain-Palin Before They Define Themselves

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The Democratic Convention this year was simply stunning, with multiple-base hits by many of the players and triples or homeruns by all its superstars. It was bookended by two picture-perfect speeches. In the first, Michelle Obama accomplished exactly what she needed to: to make clear that she is a mother, an American, one of "us," and hardly the stereotype of the angry black woman with the chip on her shoulder that the conservatives were trying to activate. She made clear that she and her husband share the same values and aspirations for their two beautiful children as most Americans for theirs.

Barack Obama's speech did exactly what it needed to, and did it poignantly, substantively, and forcefully. It laid out his indictment of the Bush years, something he has been loath to do and is precisely what the American people have been waiting for, to see if this is a man with fire in his belly, who has the capacity for both the restraint he has shown and the ability to be forceful and aggressive he has not previously shown that are both essential qualities in a commander-in-chief. It told the story of who Obama is and how his seemingly exotic life story intersects with all of our life stories and with where we are today as a nation, and how and why he can understand the pain most middle class families have been enduring after 8 long years of the most corrupt, inept, destructive administration in modern American history. It branded McCain as four more years of the same, as a man armed with 20th century ideas for 21st century problems. And it addressed straight-on most of the attacks leveled at Obama that he has never so forcefully responded to before: that he is an elitist, that he is just an empty celebrity (by putting meat on the bones of "change" without boring the listening public with the usual Democratic litany of 12-point plans on every issue), that he is un-American, that he is unpatriotic, and that he will put something or someone other than America first.

Between these speeches was a rising crescendo of voices saying, as Obama finally spoke the words, "Enough!" It would be difficult to list all the emotionally powerful moments of the speeches that marked this convention, even the prime-time speeches. Hillary Clinton, like Al Gore and John Kerry, gave the speech of her life, and they all showed more of who they all really are than any of them ever showed in their long campaigns for the hearts and minds of the American people while saddled with all the usual advice from the usual Democratic suspects--a lesson Democrats should remember, that nothing "sells" as well as being genuine and firm in your convictions. Hillary not only spoke from her gut but had none of the staged facial expressions that had marked her performances earlier in the campaign and should have been coached out of her repertoire the first time they appeared (and would have been if her consultants were Republicans, who understand the importance of nonverbals). Beau Biden's story of how his father put family first through an extraordinary ordeal that could only lead viewers to feel for Biden the person and to admire his capacity, even as a young man, to balance work and family under the most adverse circumstances; Joe Biden's speech showing how you can attack your opponent's vision without unfairly attacking his character; and Bill Clinton doing what only Bill Clinton can do were just among the highlights of a superbly orchestrated event that both informed and inspired.

In my book, The Political Brain, I argued that if you do exactly what the Democrats did last week--both inspire voters with your vision of what could be and raise legitimate anger or concern about what your opponent and his party have done or likely will do--you win elections. The latest polling data from Gallup bear that out: Obama went from 2 points behind just before the convention to 8 points ahead, reaching a high for two straight days of 49 to 41 against McCain. The convention reversed the momentum of a dreadful July and August campaign that made every standard Democratic error outlined in the book, starting with the campaign's stubborn refusal to brand McCain before he could brand himself or to respond to his successful efforts to brand Obama--as other, different, empty celebrity, uppity, narcissistic, and elitist.

Obama is now poised to break 50 percent in the polls. Whether he does so, and whether he wins or loses in November, will likely depend on whether he, his campaign team, and the Democrats learn the lessons of this convention, or whether they backslide in debates and public statements into the politics of meandering, dispassionate prose; failure to demonstrate toughness, resolve, and, yes, aggression where appropriate; and failure to understand that the best time to shape the public discourse is before the other side has had a chance to "sell" its version of truth to the American people. Decades of research in social psychology have demonstrated that two of most important principles of persuasion when people have a choice between options are to get there first--to tell your side of the story--and to inoculate against what the other side is likely to say. Democratic consultants need to read that research--tonight--and stop relying on the same intuitions that have proven wrong in election after election. We are supposed to be the party of science, yet we constantly practice political creationism.

A case in point is the way the Obama campaign appears poised to respond (or, more accurately, not to respond) to McCain's choice of a running mate, which they need to do immediately, before the start of the GOP Convention. Paul Begala has described how the narratives that sway the electorate are like constellations of stars in the sky. If your opponent picks and chooses just the right stars to place in the sky (and which ones to leave out, because they get in the way of the story he is trying to tell), he can create a constellation that shines like stars on a crystal clear night, whether that constellation is one designed to make his own stars twinkle or your candidate's stars flame out or obscured by cloud cover. It's a campaign's job to put the right stars up in the sky to create the constellations that tell the story it wants to tell about both its own candidate and its opponent. In the language of neuroscience, a campaign needs to connect the dots for voters to create networks of associations--an interconnected set of thoughts, images, ideas, metaphors, and feelings--toward each candidate that tell a compelling story about each, and to repeat that those stories enough times and in enough ways to make them "stick."

Several Democrats began doing precisely that the moment McCain made his announcement of his choice of a running mate, from Rahm Emanuel to Barbara Boxer. They were right to do so, both neurologically and politically. It is much harder to change an accepted narrative, particularly an emotionally compelling one, than to undercut it before it can take hold in the popular imagination. You don't want to let the other side blaze a neural trail in the wilderness (in this case, defining a political newcomer) that becomes the trail voters' minds naturally follow and then resist deviating from because it is the first and only story being told, without offering a counter-narrative that creates very different associations and activates very different feelings toward the candidates (in this case, toward both McCain and Palin).

The constellation McCain would like to project this week is that this was a bold move of a maverick reformer, an effort to break the glass ceiling for women, an effort to bring executive experience to his team, and the elevation to prominence of a young, socially conservative reformer with a moving story of her commitment to the crusade against all abortions. Palin decided last year not to abort a baby she knew would suffer from Down Syndrome, and she will no doubt showcase that decision and her new baby at the GOP Convention. But by putting a richer collection of stars in the sky, the Obama campaign can create an entirely different set of constellations before the GOP even begins its branding of McCain's decision and his running mate this week.

Democrats could offer at least three alternative renderings of the McCain decision, and they need to do so before the gavel bangs in Minneapolis. First, McCain is not the straight shooter who is committed to his principles (he's changed back and forth on virtually all of them, even vowing to vote against the immigration bill he himself sponsored when it was politically expedient to abandon it). Clearly the main principle guiding his actions is that he wants to be president (he wrote as much in his autobiography), and he's willing to put political calculations above the search for even a modestly competent candidate for VP. In choosing Palin, he put winning, not country, first (contrary to the tagline of his recent campaign and ads). He is hoping that picking a religious extremist who is also a woman will kill two birds with one stone, simultaneously getting his base to the polls and convincing female swing voters who initially supported Hillary to swing to him (and perhaps to deliver him Alaska, which has been thrown into the toss-up column by a series of corruption scandals, including one in which Governor Palin has been implicated). With the right stars in alignment, this story makes McCain a hypocrite of the worst sort, having blasted Obama for months for his lack of experience, particularly in foreign policy, and then choosing a person who is only 20 months into her term as governor of a small state. (Prior to that, she was mayor of a town of 9000, responsible for making sure the dogsleds ran on time.) Is this really a person who should have been on McCain's short list of, say, the 10,000 Americans most qualified to be Vice President--and, by extension, potentially the leader of the free world?

Second, McCain has just given Democrats license to raise an issue about which they have been very ginger to date, which has been on voters' minds for months: his age and health. At 72, with recurring melanomas that the public can see for itself as his face repeatedly grows new bulges, it is a sad fact but one that needs to be openly discussed (if not by Obama at least by Biden or other Democrats) that he may well not survive his first term in office. McCain knows that as well as anyone, and it made it incumbent upon him to choose a tested running mate with gravitas, who has been thoroughly vetted and has all the qualities we expect of a President of the United States. There is simply no way to construe a person with Governor Palin's resume as fit to be a heartbeat away from an aging President with recurring melanomas. It would now be grossly negligent for the media not to bring on experts to talk about melanoma and McCain's prognosis over the long run (or, for that matter, to talk about changes in the brain in the 70s, particularly in a person under the severe stress of the presidency, given his confusion about such basic facts as who the Sunnis and the Shiites are). It would be equally negligent for Democrats not to run again Palin as they would run against a Presidential candidate, because she is in essence a candidate for President like no other running mate has been before.

Third, Palin is a religious zealot who is outside the mainstream, and polls are increasingly showing that Americans have had enough of intrusions of religious zealotry into our politics. This story is essential to tell about Palin before she tells the moving story of how she and her husband made what most people who find a painful, difficult, and highly personal decision, with four children already, not to abort an apparently accidental pregnancy that prenatal testing revealed would yield a baby with Down Syndrome.

Now it is one thing to honor and respect that decision, and Obama and Biden should certainly do that. But they should also make clear that McCain and Palin believe that the millions of parents faced with painful decisions much like the one Governor Palin and her husband faced should not have any decision to make at all. Rather than deciding what's best for their own families based on their own faith, values, and circumstances, McCain and Palin would force married couples as well as single women to take any baby to term no matter how serious, painful, or debilitating the birth defect, or no matter what the impact on their lives, because McCain and Palin, like President Bush, believe they have to the right to use the government to force one person to live by another person's faith--specifically, their own.

Both McCain and Palin want to overturn Roe v. Wade and to appoint judges like Scalia who are determined to do so as soon as one more extremist is appointed to the Supreme Court if not before. Palin apparently even believes in forcing teenage incest survivors and rape victims to bear their rapists' babies (which is actually the only morally consistent position for someone who believes life begins at conception, and is a slippery slope down which Democrats should be pushing Republicans all over the country, given that 85% of Americans find it morally repugnant). McCain and Palin would also presumably have to support the death penalty (which they both support) not only for those who have or perform abortions (because they are committing premeditated murder, and if a fertilized egg is a person, it has the same standing as a fully formed person) but for the millions of parents who become pregnant through in vitro fertilization, which fertilizes more eggs than can be successfully implanted, who in McCain-Palin world are all mass-murderers. The most serious serial killers, of course, are doctors who practice fertility medicine, who occupy the same rungs of hell as Joseph Mengele for all the people they murder without remorse by using the wonders of modern medicine to help couples experience the miracle of birth. The choice between the two parties and the two pairs of candidates could not be clear: one believes that the most painful, personal life decisions should be made by a woman, couple, or family, and the other believes the government knows best when a man and a woman should or shouldn't start their family.

Palin may be a woman, but she does not share the agenda of any woman who voted for Hillary Clinton (and Democrats should speak out against the implication that she is picking up where Hillary Clinton, a woman of tremendous stature who could have assumed the role of commander-in-chief in a heartbeat, left off). Rather, the position she and others on the right have articulated gives every rapist the right to pick the mother of his child. That position is tantamount to a Rapist's Bill of Rights, which privileges the rights of rapists and child molesters over the rights of their victims. Those are McCain-Palin's "family values," and they are not mainstream American values. Stan Greenberg and I recently identified seven different messages on abortion that beat a well-crafted, well-branded Republican message about life beginning at conception by 15-20 points, and McCain has just given Democratic and progressive candidates every reason to play offense on abortion this year instead of assuming their usual defensive crouch. In fact, McCain has just forced them to play offense, and they should do so immediately, because the extremist position he and his new running mate would impose by force is offensive to the vast majority of Americans, and it will become the law of the land if the Republicans succeed this week in pulling the heartstrings of the American people with Palin's personal choice in a way that makes them forget that others should have the same choice and may decide differently than she did, and that this should not be a governmental decision. Polling data, ours included, further suggest that Democrats everywhere should ask their opponents' to state their stand on President Bush's policy of hiring of anti-contraception zealots in key governmental positions on family planning and his blackmailing of school systems into eliminating the comprehensive sex education programs that over 85% of Americans--including the vast majority of evangelical Christians--want for their children, in favor of his absurd abstinence-only policy, a policy neither he nor McCain ever practiced in their personal lives.

Palin's nomination is one that should put the nails in the coffin of McCain's candidacy in the wake of the extraordinary success of the Democratic Convention. It exposes both a poverty of judgment and a surfeit of hypocrisy and pandering to both the religious right and to the female center. But if the Democrats do not act before the GOP Convention, McCain's reckless move could become transformed by the media and then the public into the bold move of a straight-talking maverick with the foresight to catch a rising star.

That's a story that should never be allowed to reach the moment of conception.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.

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