Palin’s Big Night: A Win for McCain–And a Possible Worry for Democrats

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The speech was the easy part. But she did it well.

Delivering the most anticipated vice presidential acceptance speech in modern political history, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin accomplished the mission. She talked family, biography, policy, and John McCain. Especially John McCain the POW. And–Democrats beware–she demonstrated she’s handy with a rhetorical stiletto and can slice Barack Obama and Joe Biden while flashing a stylish smile.

The 44-year-old Palin did not wipe out questions about her experience. She did not address allegations she had abused her office while serving as a small-town mayor and as a governor. She did not defend her more extreme social positions, such as her support for teaching creationism. But in politics, performance counts for much. And for a little-known politician who had been hunkered down for days, as negative stories and rumors flew about, she had a helluva opening night. Next, Palin will have to face the media–one of the targets of her speech–fielding presumably tough queries about her actions (and life) in Alaska and her foreign policy experience (or lack thereof). But for the night, she held her own–and showed that she has the potential to be a fierce and effective critic of the Obama-Biden ticket.

Palin came on right after former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had trash-talked Obama, and she began with an obligatory maneuver: praising John McCain as a hero, and doing so multiple times. She quickly dealt with the, uh, family issue, noting that “No family ever seems typical…our family has the same ups and downs of any other.” Not quite. But it sounded good.

After comparing herself to Harry S Truman and hailing small-town Americans (like herself), she lit into Obama. “A small-town mayor,” she said, “is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities.” (When Giuliani earlier referred to Obama’s days as a community organizer, he drew laughs and hoots from the delegates.) Palin claimed that Obama had written memoirs but not laws, that he has given speeches on the Iraq war but has never used the word “victory”–except when “talking about his own campaign.” Obama, she said, was more worried about the rights of terrorists than about defeating them. And what will Obama do once he has finished “turning back the waters and healing the waters”? Raise taxes, reduce the strength of America, and do nothing to increase drilling. (The delegates repeated their favorite chant of the evening: “Drill, Baby, Drill”). “The American presidency,” Palin said, in another dig at Obama, “is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery.” She grinned the grin of a smooth put-down artist.

Palin, a self-described “hockey mom,” laid on the populism–the Republican version of populism–noting how she had confronted entrenched interests in Juneau (she got rid of the governor’s jet and chef), praising factory workers and small farmers, citing her husband’s membership in the steelworkers’ union, bashing the elite Eastern media, and denouncing the “permanent political establishment” of Washington, many of whom were in the hall as McCain supporters, donors, and aides. (After the speech, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said he believed Palin has the potential to connect with working-class voters.)

Decrying the Democrats as tax-hikers and national security weaklings, while blasting Washington, is the usual fare for Republicans. But Palin read her lines with flair and confidence. And–can we be frank?–she looked darn good doing so. She was with the program: this election is not as much about change, hope, or issues as it is about the measure of one man. “Biden and Obama,” she said toward the end of her speech, “say they are fighting for you….There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you…in places where winning means survival and where defeat means death.” He is, she continued, “the kind of fellow whose names you will find on war memorials in small towns across America–except he came home.” And, she noted, he possesses “the special confidence of those who have seen evil and have seen how evil is overcome….That is the kind of man America needs.” It’s some ticket: a made-in-small-town-America working mom and the man who goes off to war to protect her way of life.

Palin’s case for McCain was as effective a pitch for the GOP candidate as any made at the convention. And her attack on Obama was drenched with panache. After she was done, her family–including her pregnant teenage daughter’s fiancé–joined her on the stage, and then McCain walked out. “Don’t you think we made the right choice for the next vice president of the United States?” McCain exclaimed with glee. McCain and his aides were entitled to conclude that Palin had been misunderestimated by her critics and foes.

They also were entitled to believe that Palin would be something of a magnet for the party’s base. Days ago, Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, told me that by picking Palin, McCain had electrified social conservatives, who had not been jazzed by the prospect of voting for McCain in November. But at his church, this past Sunday, DeLay’s parishioners told him they now were excited about the ticket. Palin’s performance on Wednesday night can be expected to reinforce and boost social conservatives’ enthusiasm for the McCain-Palin ticket. The social cons have a new champion.

Political experts say that veep picks ultimately do not determine outcomes in presidential elections. And that’s probably true. Yet on Wednesday night, Palin displayed plenty of potential. (Joe Biden had reason to say to himself, “This debate’s gonna be a challenge.”) Though rumors still swirl and unanswered questions about her official actions in Alaska remain, Palin might end up an asset, not a liability, for McCain. She has to meet the press and withstand the ongoing and intense media scrutiny that only began a few days ago. She has to handle that debate with Biden. She has to prove her mettle on the harsh campaign trail. But while pundits before the speech were pondering how the McCain campaign could put lipstick on this (seemingly) pig of a choice, after the speech was over, it was clear, for at least the moment, that with Palin there’s more lipstick than pig.


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