Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Palin Stuff Is Fun, but Obama Gets the Real Story: It's the 90 Percent, Stupid

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

It's been a fun week, as revelation after revelation about Sarah Palin's record demonstrated time and time again what a ridiculous pick she was to take the VP slot on John McCain's ticket. And even as the right basks in the nearly universal rave reviews for her convention speech last night, it's important to remember one thing about all these Palin stories: They don't matter.

(As an aside, the plaudits for Palin's speech are clearly based on her presentation, not the content, since the substance of her remarks was filled with the same lies and distortions the GOP attack machine has been deploying since February.)

Yes, it's been sublimely entertaining to read the Palin stories from Alaska: After lambasting Barack Obama's experience for two months, John McCain picked a two-year governor of the 47th most populous state in the country (with fewer people than Columbus, Ohio) to be next in line for the presidency to a 72-year-old who has battled cancer. Then the circus surrounding the revelation that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant out of wedlock came to town (along with the inevitable facts coming to light about how Palin opposed sexual education programs in schools and cut funding for programs assisting teen mothers). And then the real fun stories starting flying in: How her husband belonged to a political party that advocated for Alaska seceding from the union and professed hate for the United States, all after the hits Obama and his wife took for allegedly lacking patriotism. How, as mayor, she fired the police chief of her town because he didn't support her campaign (and how his replacement was forced to leave after only two weeks because of his record of sexual harassment). And how she went on a mission to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper, even allegedly firing the public safety commissioner because he wouldn't carry out her personal vendetta.

Oh, and of course, the pinnacle of enjoyment for me was Republican flacks Mike Murphy and Peggy Noonan getting caught on an open microphone trashing Palin's selection, calling it "cynical" and political.

And all of it doesn't matter. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed the theater of the whole thing (and how it confirms McCain and the GOP as being completely out of touch, with no affirmative record or platform to run on). But what has made me the happiest of all is that Obama has stayed on message on the one issue that can win him the election: Tying McCain to the failed presidency of George W. Bush.

Now is not a good time to be a Republican running for office. Top GOP officials routinely admit that it is a bad environment for their party. It seems as if the question isn't if the Democrats will pick up seats in the House and Senate, but how many they will capture. The Republicans are stuck with one of the least popular presidents on record, with Bush currently enjoying an approval rating of only 28 percent in the latest poll by his own propaganda department (Fox News).

For McCain to win in November, he has to distance himself from the Republican brand, and even more so from Bush. He needs to push his myth of being a "maverick" and trick voters into thinking that his policies differ from those put in place by the current president. This is not an easy task, considering that McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study), and voted 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007.

McCain's quest to separate himself from Bush is at the heart of his pick of Palin. Sure, he hoped that some women would be swayed by the selection of a woman, and, even more likely, that some women would be influenced by the inevitable attacks on Palin's record, feeling like the media was ganging up on her. But Palin's outsider status, more than anything else, was the true allure of her selection. The goal was to set up a McCain-Palin ticket as an outside-of-Washington, reformer team to clean up the mess made by Bush.

(We'll leave the fiction of Palin's record as a reformer, including her support of earmarks, her acceptance of at least $4,500 in campaign contributions as part of the same fundraising scheme that led to the indictment of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and her service as a director of a 527 group organized by Stevens, for another piece.)

Much to my delight, Obama seems to realize the overriding importance of tying McCain to Bush. Ever since Obama's convention speech, it seems like he can't say three words without uttering the phrase "voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time" (or some variation of it). And that's a really, really good thing.

In his convention acceptance address, Obama said: "And next week, we'll also hear about those occasions when he's broken with his party as evidence that he can deliver the change that we need. But the record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time."

Yesterday, in addressing the hopeful statement from McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis that the election won't be about issues but the personalities of the candidates, Obama said: "If you've got George Bush's track record, and John McCain voting 90 percent of the time in agreement with George Bush, then you probably don't want to talk about issues either."

But the ultimate demonstration that the campaign was staying on message came when Obama's spokesman Bill Burton gave a 76-word statement in response to Palin's speech at the convention last night, and virtually all of it was about tying the GOP ticket to Bush, including yet another reference to McCain's voting record: "The speech that Gov. Palin gave was well delivered, but it was written by George Bush’s speechwriter and sounds exactly like the same divisive, partisan attacks we’ve heard from George Bush for the last eight years. If Gov. Palin and John McCain want to define ‘change’ as voting with George Bush 90 percent of the time, that’s their choice, but we don’t think the American people are ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

It's clear that the Obama campaign gets it: The key to winning is tying McCain (and now Palin) to Bush. And they're going to mention McCain's voting record every chance they get (even if they only use 76 words to make a point).

So it is Palin's Bush-like positions that should (and I think will) be the focus of the campaign's attacks on her, not the more enjoyable (but less effective) stories of her wacky days in Alaska. I have no doubt Obama will focus on the fact that Palin, for example:

- Opposes abortion, even in the cases of rape or where the life of the mother is at stake;

- Favors teaching creationism in schools; and

- Supports Bush's debacle in Iraq, even calling the war "a task from God."

Most of all, they will need to tie the McCain-Palin economic plan to Bush's failed economic policies of the last eight years.

Simply put, Palin's views run to the extreme right, perfectly in sync with those of the current president, and certainly to the right of the moderate undecided voters that McCain will need in the swing states. And the Obama campaign seems to realize that it is its job to make sure as many Americans understand this fact as possible.

Maybe the one Alaska story that will resonate with voters is her politically motivated dismissal of the police chief. After eight years of Bush politicizing the Justice Department, from the firing of the U.S. Attorneys to the political vetting of candidates for non-political positions, Palin's politics-before-competency approach to governing would make her a worthy successor to the incompetence of the Bush years. But I fear this issue will be too esoteric for a less-than-engaged electorate.

We've all had our fun at Palin's expense. But it's time to join Obama and laser in on one task: Demonstrating how a McCain-Palin administration would continue the failed policies of George W. Bush's presidency. If Obama can successfully frame the election in these terms, McCain is in big trouble. And the selection of Palin shows that McCain understands this idea, too.