Republicans pull it off
Against all odds, the GOP held one of its best conventions in decades
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Republicans had many reasons to dread their national convention. The Democrats had just finished one of their best conventions in decades, culminating with Barack Obama’s historic and inspiring acceptance address.
Meanwhile, the Republicans struggled with an unpopular president, polls predicting 2008 will be a Democratic year, a presidential nominee who often seemed listless, and a new vice-presidential nominee being pummeled by the press. To make matters worse, Hurricane Gustav forced the evacuation of New Orleans, upstaging the Republicans and reviving memories of one of the great failures of George W. Bush’s regime, the loss of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina.
Surprisingly, against all odds, the Republicans, too, pulled off one of their best conventions in decades.
The convention – and who knows, in the future, some might end up saying the election – was saved by Palin Power. On Wednesday night, a young, unknown 40-something- from Alaska gave the best debut speech at a national convention since a young, lanky, unknown 40-something from Hawaii named Barack Obama energized the Democrats in 2004. The vice-presidential nominee, Governor Sarah Palin, was poised and relaxed, eloquent yet authentic, disarmingly charming but surprisingly sharp.
Palin’s performance benefitted from the low expectations she faced. Days of unrelenting – and humiliating – media mockery had Americans already contemptuous but somewhat curious. In a classic jujitsu that was worthy of Bill Clinton at his best, Palin turned the destructive force the press unleashed against her into a calm, shrewd, but pointed attack on the insular Washington elite that supposedly dismissed her because the insiders did not know her.
In this tour de force that one media coach friend of mine said she will use to teach women how to speak effectively but not aggressively, Palin wielded her velvet-cased stiletto against the usually untouchable Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. Quipping that her previous job as mayor of a small town was like his previous job as a community organizer, but with responsibility; wondering what kind of young senator would write two books about himself without authoring any major legislation – Palin punctured the bubble of invincibility encasing Obama after the historic Democratic proceedings in Denver.
This funny, compelling, delightfully prickly speech drew a clear line in the electoral sand. Palin portrayed the Republicans as the real Americans, hard-working, down-to-earth, God-fearing, ready to fight for their country, and committed to win whatever wars they are forced into, while caricaturing Democrats as fey, elitist, lazy, superior, unwilling to serve in the army, and unable, as Palin lamented, to talk about “victory” against U.S. enemies – only victory in their own selfish campaigns.
Palin’s rhetorical grand slam energized the convention – and might have spurred John McCain to give one of the best speeches of his life as well. McCain is not a natural. Unlike his Democratic rival, McCain is far better in informal back-and-forths with voters than with grand addresses in large settings. But it was clear that McCain felt vindicated by Palin’s success – after a week of naysaying that questioned his judgment along with her suitability – and pretty jazzed too.
While much of his acceptance speech was unexceptional, neither as soaring as Obama’s nor as fun as Palin’s, McCain ended with a rousing call to Americans to fight for what’s right. Starting with a powerful recounting of his experiences as a prisoner of war during Vietnam, saying that he learned from the traumas he endured to live for his country not just for himself, McCain called on his fellow Americans to learn the same lesson.
McCain’s speech offered an important balance to his running mate’s rhetoric. Underneath all Palin’s charm was an ugly, divisive call for Republicans to revive the Culture Wars of the last few decades. Her us-vs.-them message, though gift-wrapped beautifully, might help Republicans win in 2008 but is not what the United States needs. Politically, it helped compensate for George W. Bush’s historic lows in the polls, and the perception that Republicans have no fresh solutions to the problems that have appeared on their watch. But it was the equivalent of the lawyer with a guilty client pounding the table passionately to compensate for the weakness of his case.
McCain’s speech reinforced the message that Republicans are patriots who serve, especially in the military, and Democrats are doubters who dodge. But McCain also elegantly saluted Barack Obama and the Democrats as “fellow Americans,” saying: “that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” McCain also called for an end to the “partisan rancour” that characterizes so much of contemporary politics. He used his running mate to emphasize his maverick status as a Washington outsider – and as someone not responsible for the Bush administration’s failures.
The election remains too close to call and will inevitably be fought passionately, and at times, viciously. But perhaps, just this once, Americans can be proud that they have such talented people vying to be their leaders. Perhaps, just this once, they can follow John McCain’s cue, and appreciate the common ideals that unite these leaders and their fellow citizens, even amid the hurly-burly and hoopla of a presidential campaign.
Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University, and the author of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008