Column for 14 September, 2008
“Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”
When John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, my first thought was that he had taken a big gamble that wasn’t likely to pay off; namely, that Hillary Clinton voters would abandon just about every stand Clinton has ever taken on any issue just because another woman says to. My opinion has evolved, or maybe become intelligently designed, over time. Yes, it seems clear that Palin, someone McCain had only met twice briefly, was a last-minute pick. And yes, media coverage at that time was pretty much obsessed with the idea of disgruntled Hillary supporters who would supposedly refuse to support Obama. But why Palin? She is certainly not the most experienced or well-known of Republican women leaders. One simple reason: all of the other Republican women, including Kay Bailey Hutchison, are pro-choice. The GOP would never have tolerated a pro-choice candidate; it is only slightly less likely that a pro-life candidate would ever receive the blessing of a Democratic Convention. And if McCain was going to pick a pro-choice running mate, he would’ve gone with Tom Ridge or his real favorite Joe Lieberman. Thus, Palin; as far to the right as it is possible to be on social issues, which are the only issues that matter to the increasingly dwindling GOP base. Despite all the fluff and hot air, she was never intended to appeal to Hillary voters or Democrats or Independents; Palin’s function is to energize the social conservatives who have, at least until now, been tepid at best in their support of McCain. Energizing the base is the only hope McCain has, because his campaign at least recognizes something that Obama is only just now learning: the electoral map for 2008 will be just about the same as it was in 2004. Put aside all the giddy talk of Obama taking Mississippi; it’s not going to happen, increased African-American turnout or not. If black voter registration and turnout were both at 100%, it wouldn’t shift a single state in the now Republican Solid Deep South. Obama will almost certainly get every electoral vote John Kerry did four years ago (252); he seems likely to pick up Iowa and New Mexico, which brings him up to 264 electoral votes. To win he has to pick off just one of the 2004 battle-ground states, Colorado, Florida, or Ohio, or the only new battleground state Virginia. There are some variables, of course. Ron Paul has qualified for the ballot in Montana on the Constitutional Party line; that could be enough to throw the state to Obama and take him to 267, just three electoral votes shy. It’s also possible that Obama could win Nevada’s five electoral votes. If that’s all he won over Kerry’s total, the result would be a 269 to 269 tie, but such a scenario seems pretty unlikely. Of the battleground states, I would personally rank them in terms of Obama’s chances, from most likely to least likely, as 1) Colorado; 2) Ohio; 3) Florida and 4) Virginia. McCain’s job, therefore, is to prevent Obama from carrying any of these states, a tough job to be sure, but one that would be utterly and completely impossible without the assistance of the religious conservatives who are apparently besotted with Palin. Since the polling margins in all four of these states are tight and they have flopped back and forth several times, a relatively small number of additional voters could be the difference between winning and losing. And so, tossing aside old “reach across the aisle” rhetoric, McCain has sharpened his tongue, attacking the “liberal media” in a shockingly cynical example of biting the hand that feeds. If there’s one thing that can get Republicans all riled up, it’s a good rant about the “liberal” media, a line of attack that dates back to Spiro Agnew and his condemnation of “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Since reality has a well-known liberal bias, any news that contradicts the party line can then be dismissed out of hand as “biased.” This bashing of the media has had the additional strategic benefit of shielding Palin from press scrutiny. Evidently, the governor who has the experience to be commander-in-chief on day one can only handle live questions from a milquetoast apple-polisher like Charlie Gibson. Unfortunately, all this means yet another Culture War campaign, where important issues like America’s long-term environmental and economic health will be pushed off to the sidelines. Republicans will continue to smear Obama’s patriotism. Nitwits like Cong. Lynn Westmoreland will continue to drop thinly-veiled racist code words like “uppity.” Fortunately for the overwhelming majority of Americans who do not in fact want four more years of George W. Bush (only this time less competent), Obama seems to have learned a lesson from his long intense war with Hillary Clinton for the nomination and from John Kerry’s failure: fight back.