John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate has created a new dynamic in this year’s presidential election. For months, pundits and experts (not always the same thing) have been telling us that the election came down to a referendum on Barack Obama. Because of the fatigue felt toward President Bush in the waning days of his administration, voters are ready enough for change to vote for just about any Democrat – all Obama has to do was pass some minimal bar of acceptability to prove he would be capable at the helm.
It would be McCain’s job, not so much to prove himself capable, for few people would deny that his experience and history have prepared him for such a role, but to work to convince voters that Barack Obama was not ready and not right for this nation, especially at this time.
While that dynamic still exists – of course Obama will not be elected president if he does not pass the capability test – the importance of it is now being challenged due to the excitement surrounding Sarah Palin’s inclusion on the GOP ticket. Sarah Palin is the new rock star, the hot celebrity, the hip and happening center of gravity now in the campaign.
The excitement and deep emotions cut both ways, of course. As excited as Republicans and conservatives are, Democrats and liberals are shaken and dismayed. For every campaign stop with thousands of screaming and adoring supporters chanting “Sa-rah Sa-rah”, there are elite media personalities and Democratic operatives and even Obama campaign representatives willing to drag Sarah Palin through the gutter of rumors and smears and whispers and lies. As is true almost any time cable news becomes must-see-TV, the results are largely cringe-inducing.
This new stage in the campaign is all about who Sarah Palin is, what she represents, and how people react to someone so completely unlike the politicians we expect to run on a national ticket in an election for the highest office in the country.
Sarah Palin has never been exposed to the national media, and perhaps more importantly the national media has never been exposed to Sarah Palin or anyone like her as a nominee in a presidential campaign. Palin doesn’t run in the elite media cocktail circuit and shows no interest in doing so. Palin took direct aim at the media in her acceptance speech when she said,
I've learned quickly these last few days that, if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.
But -- now, here's a little newsflash. Here's a little newsflash for 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 great country.
Sarah Palin creates an antipathy in the elite media. She is ambitious, but to get things done rather than to be well-known or to be well-liked. And while the elite media sees themselves as the gatekeepers of information to be disseminated to the public, in Palin they are confronted with someone who is willing and so far able to speak to the public directly with or without them.
Sarah Palin has come under intense criticism for her resume from all corners of the Democratic Party establishment. She was the mayor of a small town, she attended five colleges none of them elite private institutions, and she doesn’t even have a graduate level degree.
Sarah Palin is a working mom, mother of five, happily married to her high school sweetheart. Hers is a story of the every day, working class woman who has succeeded in everything she has done, and who has been rewarded with advancement after achieving her goals through determination and hard work. And Palin’s record as a public official is filled with accomplishment, bi-partisan success and even reform against the interests of her own party.
The Democratic Party establishment is geared toward battling old, rich men who either come from well-connected families or who have long connections to those families and circles. Democrats are well-prepared to take on the likes of a John McCain, Mitt Romney, or George Bush, and have geared their operations for such opponents, including developing a well-defined message on how to defeat such politicians.
Without the old playbook to go by, Democrats find themselves reduced to a Hillary Clintonesque kitchen sink strategy against Palin. Throw anything and everything against her. But this undisciplined approach has given them over to a highly emotional and in many cases utterly repulsive response that reeks of sexism and elitism. It has produced spasms of vile and hateful words, whose purpose is not so much to defeat a political rival, but to destroy a specific person.
But for Republicans and for independent voters outside of the deeply blue enclaves or outside of the mindset of the deeply blue partisan, Sarah Palin doesn’t create such excitement because she is the answer to the “who do you want to have a beer with” question. She doesn’t stir deep emotions in voters because she is the one we have waited for who can understand our problems and feel our pain from a distance. Because no matter how much those things are attempts to make a politician someone we can relate to, and who we think can relate to us – it still keeps them at arms’ length and separate.
Sarah Palin is not a person educated in the halls of Ivy League universities. She is not from a long line of political stock. She did not inherit the legacy of a powerful family. She was not mentored by politically connected professionals to be groomed for high government positions. She is not a politician who happens to be a mother and a wife – she is a mother and a wife who has set out through hard work and determination to ascend the political ladder to the position of governor and now as the vice presidential nominee in the Republican Party.
Sarah Palin doesn’t own seven houses, and she doesn’t take her kids to school using a limousine. Her husband is a member of the local union, and her community organizing experience is that of PTA mom. Even the things that would make her exotic, like being a former beauty queen, reflect more popular culture than high society. And even though very few people can relate to the experience of killing a moose, the idea of a hunter and outdoorsman paint a picture of someone well grounded in the type of middle-American values most people can identify with. And while all of that provides the basis for the vituperation among the elite media and the Democratic Party establishment, it endears here to most everyone else in a way not usually seen in a politician.
Sarah Palin is the politician who voters look at and say, “she is just like me”.
And therein lies the new dynamic of the race for the next six weeks. Make no mistake, John McCain and Barack Obama are the presidential nominees. Behind the curtain of the voting booth, voters’ minds will focus on the choice between those two men.
But now, with Sarah Palin having taken center stage in the election, as voters we will be forced to ask ourselves new questions leading up to the point of pulling that lever (or fingering the touch screen or punching chads, but I digress). Should the pinnacle of government be reserved only for the elite, highly-educated and well-connected and single-minded career politicians? Are such people better positioned and experienced to make the decisions of how the government should be run, to the exclusion of those like Sarah Palin, those who are “just like me”?
Answers to these questions may well determine the outcome in this year’s presidential election.