The new, un-Washingtonian GOP ticket
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  and February . He may still be appealing next year , 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.