The new, un-Wash­ing­to­nian GOP ticket

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

In the last 30 years or so, since pres­i­den­tial con­ven­tions have no longer ac­tu­ally de­cided the nom­i­nees, their usual pur­pose has been to fo­cus and project a pos­i­tive im­age of the al­ready cho­sen can­di­date (and, of course, dis­par­age the op­po­nent.) But two weeks ago in St. Paul, the GOP con­ven­tion did some­thing dif­fer­ent. It didn’t merely en­hance but — at least for the mo­ment — it re­versed, field­ing the im­age of the Repub­li­can ticket.

In the af­ter­math of that re­ver­sal, the en­tire pres­i­den­tial con­test has been up­ended. It also has­tened (or per­haps even made pos­si­ble at all) the change of the hu­man im­age of the GOP from Bush/Cheney to McCain/Palin. Un­til two weeks ago, Sen. John McCain was run­ning as the bor­ing can­di­date of ex­pe­ri­ence, and was un­able to sub­stan­tially re­place Pres­i­dent Bush as the im­age of the party. With Mr. Bush hav­ing a 70 per­cent neg­a­tive im­age, he was not only drag­ging down Mr. McCain, but con­sti­tuted a drown­ing weight on the buoy­ancy of Repub­li­can candidates at the fed­eral, state and lo­cal lev­els.

But with the ad­di­tion of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, sud­denly and spon­ta­neously, Mr. McCain the re­former, Mr. McCain the mav­er­ick stopped be­ing a GOP talk­ing point and be­came in­car­nate. It is not just that the Alaska gov­er­nor is a gen­uine re­former, but that by ev­ery as­pect of her be­ing she is fresh, dif­fer­ent, rec­og­niz­ably nor­mal, and thus the un-Wash­ing­to­nian. The power of her im­age has su­per-charged Mr. McCain’s im­age.

We see the first ef­fects of McCain/Palin re­plac­ing Bush/Cheney in the USA To­day Gallup poll of Sept. 8, in which 48 per­cent of re­spon­dents say they’re Democrats or lean to the De­moc- ratic Party; 47 per­cent say they’re Repub­li­cans or lean to the GOP. That mere one point party gap — the strong­est po­si­tion for Repub­li­cans since Bush’s sec­ond in­au­gu­ral at the beginning of 2005 — had been in dou­ble dig­its only a few weeks ago. More­over, vot­ers by only 48-45 per­cent sup­port the Demo­cratic can­di­date in their con­gres­sional district — the Demo­cratic Party’s nar­row­est ad­van­tage this year. If th­ese num­bers hold - and it is a big if - Repub­li­cans may well lose far fewer seats in the House and Se­nate in Novem­ber.

More­over, in an act of po­lit­i­cal alchemy, Mr. McCain’s se­lec­tion of the na­tion­ally in­ex­pe­ri­enced Mrs. Palin only un­der­scored Sen. Barack Obama’s own na­tional in­ex­pe­ri­ence. Worse for Mr. Obama, Mrs. Palin’s pres­ence has sucked the oxy­gen out of Sen. Joe Bi­den’s pub­lic state­ments, forc­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Obama into the un­think­able — he must him­self go on the at­tack against Mr. McCain’s vice pres­i­den­tial ju­nior part­ner. Worst of all for Mr. Obama, his cam­paign of a fresh face with new ideas is fall­ing vic­tim to a newer face with newer ideas.

As I pre­dicted al­most two years ago in a Fe­bru­ary 28, 2007 col­umn: “What does it mean to be a ‘fresh face’ in a 12-month pri­mary cam­paign in an In­ter­neted, 24-7 news cy­cle en­vi­ron­ment? This, of course, must be a ques­tion that Mr. Obama and his peo­ple are puz­zling over now. He will be as fa­mil­iar as an old shoe to Demo­cratic Party pri­mary vot­ers by next Jan­uary [2008] and Fe­bru­ary [2008]. He may still be ap­peal­ing next year [2008], but he will no longer be fresh [. . .] A new idea put for­ward a year be­fore pri­mary vot­ing risks not only pro­vid­ing more than suf­fi­cient time for an op­po­nent’s re­search team to find and pub­li­cize the flaws in the idea [. . .] it also runs the risk of be­com­ing stale and, most dan­ger­ously, of let­ting events over­take the pro­posal.

Thus is lost one of the great ad­van­tages of chal­lengers that their ideas are fresh, ap­peal­ing and plau­si­ble, but not pub­lic long enough to be mea­sured by events and con­sid­ered judg­ment which is the in­evitable plight of in­cum­bents and their party suc­ces­sors.

One of the other im­pon­der­able chal­lenges to both fresh faces and well-known vet­eran candidates is how to man­age the life ex­pectancy of clever phrases and slo­gans and even of en­dear­ing per­son­al­ity quirks and styles of speech or man­ner. Th­ese things tend to get old. I sus­pect that the in­sa­tiable pub­lic maw of fresh­ness-hunger will prove a vast chal­lenge to the word­smith and me­dia shops of all the cam­paigns [. . .] Per­haps this will be the elec­tion cy­cle of the late en­tries.” And this is ex­actly what Mr. Obama is be­ing forced to deal with. First his star­tling and lofty rhetoric grew stale from overuse. And now his once en­gag­ing (for some) ideas are be­ing over­taken by events. His call for quick re­treat from Iraq, over­taken by the surge and the smell of victory, has forced him to re- verse field and ad­mit the surge has been an un­ex­pected (by him) suc­cess. Then the de­clin­ing econ­omy forced him this week to back away from his soak the rich tax in­creases — for fear of fur­ther dam­ag­ing the econ­omy.

Of course, the perils of Pauline still may threaten Mrs. Palin, and two months is time enough for many more strange twists. But one week on from the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, it is fair to say that never in mod­ern his­tory has a pres­i­den­tial ticket ben­e­fit­ted so much from its con­ven­tion. And never have the hopes and en­ergy of a mori­bund party risen so quickly and so high.

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