“They need to put Palin in the rearview mirror,” says one Democratic strategist. “Let other people blab about it. They’ve got just one job over the next two months: Talk about Barack Obama to undecided voters. If she’s as screwy as she seems, she’ll take care of herself.”
The possibility of a Palin implosion is real enough. Rumors about her past are swirling. If Schmidt and his associates ever deign to let her meet the national press, she might prove to be a gaffe machine. Her October 2 debate with Joe Biden could leave her shredded in pieces on the floor. (Or, unless Biden keeps his tongue under control, it could be the moment when Obama thinks the unthinkable: Man, I wish I’d gone with Hillary.)
But as the afterglow of Palin’s speech faded, the contours of the battlefield—and possible lines of attack—began to reemerge. As Axelrod noted to me, the troubling thing about the Palin pick isn’t Palin—it’s what the choice says about McCain. About how he makes decisions. His impetuousness. His rashness. His recklessness. His unpredictable leadership style. “It’s McCain as the unreliable Republican,” says one leading political ad-maker. “The subtext is already there. He’s spent years selling you the maverick brand. That’s one side of the coin. All you have to do is flip the coin over and it’s there: the dark side of maverick. ‘You never know what he’ll do next.’ ”
And concerns about McCain’s age, a subject that heretofore the Obama campaign has had to approach with extreme care, are brought closer to the surface by Palin’s youth and lack of experience. Two days after the announcement that Saracuda was boarding the Straight Talk Express, the pollster Frank Luntz convened a focus group of undecided voters. When asked about the freshly minted V.P. nominee, one woman—a Hillary voter then leaning in McCain’s direction—said, according to Time’s Joe Klein, “[McCain’s] age didn’t really bother me until he picked Palin. What if he dies in office and leaves us with her as president?”
When I asked Axelrod if he was willing to go there, on either recklessness or age, he declines to answer. But in a way, he already has. After McCain badly botched a question last month from a reporter about his real-estate portfolio, the Obama campaign uncorked an ad in which the narrator intones, “When asked how many houses he owns, McCain lost track, he couldn’t remember”—an ad that fairly screamed old, old, old. Meanwhile, in his speech in Denver, Obama himself declared that he was ready to debate McCain over who has the “temperament” to be commander-in-chief. Hothead, anyone?
What Axelrod is willing to discuss are the ways in which he believes that Palin has altered the terrain on which the election will be contested. “The pick has shifted their message to reform,” he says. “McCain is trying to recapture the outsider lane. They’ll try to portray us as the candidate of the conventional Democratic Party liberal orthodoxy. They’ll hit us on the issues they always do, like taxes.” Axelrod goes on: “The goal for us is to keep the focus on the center ring, which is, ‘You’re complicit in the policies that are killing people, and you want to continue them because you say that they are working.’ We’re gonna continue to hammer away on that.”
McCain’s decision to shore up his base by teaming up with Palin should make it easier, not harder, for Axelrod and his people to define McCain as a Republican. And though the Alaska governor’s presence on the ticket has plainly goosed the hard right, it has also jolted the Democratic ranks. (Some $10 million flowed into Obama’s coffers on the heels of Palin’s speech.) In a year like this—with the economy in disarray, the Republican brand dead on its feet, and 80 percent of the electorate deeming the country to be on the wrong track—a base-on-base election plainly favors the Democrats, so long as they play their cards right.
The problem for Obama is that it’s been a good long while, convention aside, since he and his team have done that. For all the jabber about Palin’s gender, the more relevant political fact about her may be her working-class appeal, and the working class has never exactly been Obama’s sweet spot. And though part of that may be owed to the dexterity of Schmidt et al. in branding him a celebrelitist, a bigger part can be put down to his consistent, maddening failure to conjure a compelling economic narrative on which to hang his policy proposals. And that in turn has handed the Republicans an opportunity: to highlight culture over economics.
Or, put more bluntly, to restart the culture wars. It required no great perspicacity to see this was what the Republicans were up to last week in St. Paul. The signposts were everywhere and garish. Here was Fred Thompson, essentially accusing Obama of being in favor of infanticide. Here was Rudy Giuliani at his feral, bloodlusty, sarcasmagoric worst. “I’m sorry that Barack Obama feels that [Palin’s] hometown isn’t cosmopolitan enough,” snarled the mayor. “Maybe they cling to religion there.” And here was Palin, rhetorically attaching sandals to Obama’s feet, draping beads around his neck, and placing an ACLU membership card in his back pocket. “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America,” she said, “and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”
The script was old, the act was tried, the performances ludicrous to the point of being comical. And the whole ugly circus was made all the more ridiculous by the performance of McCain calling for unity amid the howling hyenas, grinding his way through a speech text whose archaic cadences, if read by someone remotely capable, would sound like something from the mouth of Henry Clay or John Calhoun. A performance, that is, so at odds with the others at the convention, and with Palin’s in particular, that if you actually tried to reconcile them in your mind, the titanic degree of cognitive dissonance would make your head explode.
But there is a reason the Republicans keep falling back, again and again, on such hoary tropes. The reason is that, from the age of Nixon to the era of Lee Atwater to our current (yes, apparently, it’s not dead yet) epoch of Rove, they have all too often worked. Us versus them is a potent message—and one tailor-made to a candidate with the name Barack Hussein Obama. Who, need it really be pointed out, is plainly not like you.
Will it work again? Who knows? With the emergence of Sarah Palin as the wild card in this year’s race, we are once again in this mind-bending election year wandering around, deep in the wilds of political terra incognita. She is one of those plot twists too incredible even for Hollywood. “Anyone who says they can tell you how it’s all going to play out, how the pieces all fit together in a presidential campaign, is kidding you,” Axelrod says. “You can’t really understand the story until it’s written.”