St. Paul-- John McCain and Sarah Palin are tapping into the angry, conservative, anti-government populist tradition represented in recent years by politicians ranging from George Wallace to Richard Nixon to Spiro Agnew to Pat Buchanan.
"This is conservative populism with a female face," a pleased and happy Alex Castellanos, media consultant to George W. Bush and Jesse Helms, said to the Huffington Post. "Barack Obama told us America is broken and Washington can fix it. Well guess what, we believe America is great and Washington is broken."
Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant, had a different take. "Swiftboating is back, but now it's not disguised by a 527 [a third party independent group]. The keynoter [Rudy Giuliani] and VP nominee [Palin] are doing it," Shrum said. "The rawest attacks are coming from the podium. This is really personal, the anger and resentment toward Obama."
The fury at the press; the resentment of 'elites,' especially 'liberal' and 'Washington' elites; the denunciation of Democratic leaders as too timid in a dangerous world, presented in colorful and sometimes powerful language - all of this goes back to 1968 and 1972, when the Republican Party first tapped into a stratum of national discontent in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, rising rates of crime, a new and aggressive feminism, and a massive anti-war movement.
The Nixon landslide of 1972, and the subsequent decades of conservative domination of American politics, demonstrated the power of conservative, race-tinged populism.
It has been a long time, however, since the dreaded "Washington liberal elite" has been in a position to impose an agenda on the American people. Republicans have controlled the White House for five of the last seven administrations. Nonetheless, this election appears to have become a testing ground for the viability of this core Republican strategy.
This venerable GOP game plan - practiced by such Republican luminaries as Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Roger Stone and Charlie Black -- seeks to turn the election into a choice between two fundamental visions. On one side are -- as described by Palin on Wednesday night -- good people, with clear implications about the 'other' people:
"I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.... And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves....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."
At a more abstract level, Giuliani, in a convention speech leading up to Palin's, declared that, unlike the Democrats, the GOP is "the party that believes unapologetically in America's essential greatness - that we are a shining city on the hill, a beacon of freedom that inspires people everywhere to reach for a better world."
This is the kind of politics that McCain has rejected in the past, but has increasingly adopted in the current campaign. While it may or may not prove successful, McCain's embrace of this approach reflects the reality that in the current climate, Republicans face powerful headwinds and to improve their chances of winning they may have to aggressively demonize their opponents.
This stands in contrast to McCain's earlier years. When McCain first entered the House in 1982 at the start of the Reagan revolution, he refused to join Newt Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society. "I had reservations about some of the scorched earth tactics they were beginning to employ," McCain wrote in his book Worth the Fighting For. In the Senate, he defied hard-line conservatives by co-sponsoring bills with such liberal Democrats at Ted Kennedy and Russell Feingold.
The strategy at the convention here was to place Palin, Giuliani and a host of other surrogates in attack dog roles, while allowing McCain to generally stay above the fray in his closing speech to focus his attention more on the electorate at large than on the Republican base.
"Finally, a word to Senator Obama and his supporters," McCain told the television audience. "We'll go at it over the next two months. That's the nature of these contests, and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other. We're dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. No country ever had a greater cause than that. And I wouldn't be an American worthy of the name if I didn't honor Senator Obama and his supporters for their achievement. But let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election."
Compared to the speakers Wednesday night, McCain's critique of Obama was modest: "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it. My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them. My health care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance. His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor."
Both Palin's and Giuliani's speeches Wednesday night were thoroughly vetted by the McCain campaign and the content of both unmistakably point to a revival of the Wallace-Agnew-Nixon-Buchanan tradition.
"This [Obama] is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign," Palin told cheering delegates in the Imax Center. "Victory in Iraq is finally in sight -- he wants to forfeit. Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay -- he wants to meet them without preconditions. Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America -- he's worried that someone won't read them their rights....
"But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people."
And here is Giuliani:
For 4 days in Denver and for the past 18 months Democrats have been afraid to use the words "Islamic Terrorism." During their convention, the Democrats rarely mentioned the attacks of September 11.They are in a state of denial about the threat that faces us now and in the future. You need to face your enemy in order to defeat them. John McCain will face this threat and lead us on to victory....
[Obama] has never had to lead people in crisis. This is not a personal attack....it's a statement of fact - Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada....[When Russia rolled over Georgia] Obama's first instinct was to create a moral equivalency - that "both sides" should 'show restraint.' The same moral equivalency that he has displayed in discussing the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel. Later, after discussing it with his 300 foreign policy advisors, he changed his position and suggested that the 'the UN Security Council,' could find a solution. Apparently, none of his 300 advisors told him that Russia has a veto on any UN action. Finally Obama put out a statement that looked ...well, it looked a lot like John McCain's. Here's some free advice: Sen. Obama, next time just call John McCain.
Compare Palin and Giuliani to Nixon's 'Silent Majority' speech of November 3, 1969:
In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading: 'Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home.'...But as president of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street. ...If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.'.... I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days. But I feel it is appropriate to do so on this occasion....Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism. And so tonight -- to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans -- I ask for your support.
Or Agnew's speech, written by Buchanan, in Des Moines, November 13, 1969:
What do Americans know of the men who wield this power, of the men who produce and direct the network news....We do know that, to a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C. or New York City--the latter of which James Reston terms the "most unrepresentative community in the entire United States." Both communities bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism. We can deduce that these men thus read the same newspapers, and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints.
Or Buchanan at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston:
One by one, the prophets of doom appeared at the [Democratic] podium. The Reagan decade, they moaned, was a terrible time in America; and the only way to prevent even worse times, they said, is to entrust our nation's fate and future to the party that gave us McGovern, Mondale, Carter and Michael Dukakis.
Nearly 40 years ago, Kevin Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, a book that laid out the potential for a majoritarian conservative populism:
Technology and economic growth have raised the old [Democratic] working class constituency to a new affluence, enlarging the old middle class into middle America," and these voters no longer felt that a Democratic Party increasingly tied to the racial, social and cultural upheavals welcomed them. The Democrats had, according to Phillips, became the "liberal establishment.....It is Scarsdale, Park Avenue, Wall Street, the Episcopal Church, the major metropolitan newspapers, television networks, the best suburbs and universities, the Beautiful People.
In the intervening years, Phillips has turned against the GOP, arguing that it advanced the interests of the wealthy instead of average working people. Phillips underestimated the longevity of the conservative coalition that he so presciently anticipated. This November 4 will determine whether the Phillips' analysis of the parties in 1969 still holds after 39 years.