Democrats at first thought that they had been handed an unexpected gift from McCain in the form of Sarah Palin. With her lack of national or international experience, presidential scholars on the left and right noted that she had the thinnest resume of anyone on a national ticket in the last 100 years. As the stories began piling up about her pregnant teenage daughter, her hiring of a lawyer to defend herself in Troopergate, and her flip-flops on the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," it seemed the choice of Palin might well sink the ship of McCain's candidacy.
Last night's Republican convention speech convinced virtually everyone that Palin was underestimated. Not because she suddenly has the requisite experience, policy chops, or skills to run the country. But because she proved herself a tough and galvanizing leader in the culture wars that have long played out in national politics. The near-ecstatic response of the conservative base had nothing to do with the substance of her proposals (which were largely absent) but in her ability to confidently attack the opposition and appear to embody conservative values.
The tendency on the Democratic side is to argue against such a new force on the basis of substance and policies, bringing in science and statistics and programs to appeal to voter's economic interests. However, as experts such as George Lakoff point out, the winning of campaigns often rests more on emotions, values, and cognitive framing than on substance and policies.
Sarah Palin is a new icon for the evangelical, conservative voting block that has not been fully engaged with the McCain campaign, partially because he is not lock-stepped aligned with their beliefs. She has been carefully chosen as a political weapon to galvanize this base and win over swing voters with her small town appeal, as well as some Clinton defectors. She has not been chosen to help McCain govern if he were to win but to help him win the election.
That said, it's clear that the threat posed by this new weapon is real, especially because she can project warmth, charm, and family appeal. As Anderson Cooper on CNN said, she can slip in the knife without people even realizing she's done it.
What can be done to neutralize this new weapon and forestall a rejuvenated culture war that ultimately undermines America's wisdom in selecting our top leadership?
The task as I see it is to demonstrate that Sarah Palin is simply not who she claims to be, as new evidence and testimonials from Alaska are showing. This is not a task for the Obama campaign, which should not divert from their inspired campaigning around a positive vision for America. It's not even really a task for the major media- the culture warriors love an enemy and the media has long been a favorite enemy against which to polarize. Even the best journalism will be challenged as sexist, as mandated by new Republican talking points. It's a task for grassroots people like you and me who can personally circulate the stories and emails that reveal that Sarah Palin is not who she says she is.
For example, some of the following notes come from Anne Kilkenny in Wasilla, an active voter registrar and someone who has known Palin personally throughout her full political career. The full letter Anne felt compelled to circulate is very startling and illuminating, which can be found here.
Fiscal conservative: As mayor of Wasilla, Palin is reported to have started without any debt and left with $22M in debt, much of it to pay for a sports center project that continues to lose money. She raised taxes substantially during her time and ballooned the budget by 33%.
Ethics reformer: She has been followed by a reputation for political ruthlessness and vindictiveness for those who don't kowtow to her. Troopergate, in which she pushed for the firing of her sister's ex-husband, and appears to have fired the public safety commissioner who refused to comply, is just the tip of the iceberg. She pushed to have a town librarian fired who refused to censor books that Palin didn't like and a police chief who "intimidated her." She fired many of the experienced staff in her new positions and replaced them with inexperienced loyalists. She appears quite willing to abuse her political power to take personal enemies down.
Anti-pork: While mayor, Palin actively and successfully pursued $27M in government earmarks. On the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, Palin campaigned for governor fully supporting the project, telling town leaders that they should be offended by being called "nowhere." After the bridge became a political liability, she began condemning the project.
Maverick: Palin's values and positions are in lock-step agreement with the beliefs held by the majority of evangelicals. McCain, I believe, has some sincerity in his maverick position. Palin does not show signs of being independent of party or religious beliefs.
Executive: Apparently, while mayor of Wasilla Palin got herself into trouble for extensive firings. Her own party officials pressured her into hiring an administrator to run the town, implying that she didn't have adequate political finesse to run a town of 5000.
Family values: Despite the wholesome appearance of her family on stage, Palin appears to have a strained relationship with her own mother-in-law, who said, "I'm not really sure what she brings to the ticket," and had not yet decided whether or not to vote for her. Hardly a ringing endorsement from someone who knows her better than any of us will in the next 60 days.
What seems to be most true about Palin is her nickname: Barracuda. Well-trained in hunting moose and competing in elections, she is certainly ruthless. The unfortunate part is that it seems that much of that ruthlessness is about the expansion of her own power rather than in service to citizens.
John McCain has undermined his campaign slogan of Country First with his selection of a VP nominee based on political value rather than capacity to be President. The best way to neutralize this political play is to demonstrate that Palin is not who she claims to be, which undermines her effectiveness as an icon. And this assessment is best accomplished through personal stories and anecdotes from her home state so that it does not appear there is a media "pile-on" as Republican talking points now claim. The more that we can compile, circulate, and amplify stories such as Anne Kilkenny's, the quicker the image that she is cultivating on the national stage can be dissolved as far from the truth.
After Sarah Palin is neutralized as a culture warrior, we can focus our attention on who can lead this nation in the direction that we most need to go, which is an evolution beyond culture wars into a more united and enlightened America.
Follow Stephen H. Dinan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stephendinan