The future of the Republican Party-5: McCain opens the Pandora’s box

One of Al Gore’s biggest sins for which I will never forgive him is his putting into the spotlight the insufferable Joe Lieberman by selecting him as his running mate in 2000. Lieberman has milked his gift of prominence to the maximum so that it is now hard to avoid his smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous presence in the media.

John McCain is likely to suffer similar reproof among large segments of the population for his inflicting of Sarah Palin on the American public. She too has a grating personality, though in her case it is her snide and sneering tone mixed with her ignorant but pugnacious self-assurance that tends to irritate.

But in many ways, McCain’s choice of Palin will do a lot more harm to the Republicans that Lieberman did to the Democrats, even though the latter actually campaigned against the Democratic candidate and provided cover for some of the most despicable allegations made against Obama. In the end, Lieberman represents just himself, a voting bloc of one, and will eventually disappear, most likely losing his next senatorial election in 2012.

But Palin does represent a large constituency that will not go away even in the event that she does, and this group has been newly energized by the Palin selection and their claim to power is what is going to cause problems.

McCain belongs more to the old-style conservative Republican wing of the party, does not seem particularly religious or enamored of the religion-based agenda of the social values bloc, and he probably saw that bloc in the subservient role it has traditionally played, which is to mainly turn up on election day. It is very likely that when McCain selected Palin, he saw her as bringing female and outsider and youth and energy credentials to the ticket, nothing more.

I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain’s running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora’s box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver’s seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the ‘real Republicans’ are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

As is usually the case, the names of candidates from the previous election are being bandied about the most. Mitt Romney is the one who is most nakedly revealing his ambitions. But he is a Mormon and however much he and his church may protest that they are really just another Christian denomination, they are still seen by many Christians as not one of them, a little too out there, more like Scientologists and Wiccans. Furthermore his earlier softer stances on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose may make his true-believer credentials suspect. For these reasons, I think that he has a tough road ahead of him to gain the Republican nomination.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

Another rumored vice-presidential candidate Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is also seen as a possibility for future party leadership. Does he have the required religious cred? He is the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert from Hinduism and describes his conversion in a 1993 article.

He seems to hold orthodox, hard-line conservative Catholic views, which puts his in agreement with the evangelical social values voters on most of the issues dear to them. He is fervently anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-embryonic stem cell research.

His youthful involvement with an exorcism might worry old-style conservative Republicans but will likely strengthen his religious credibility among the true believers, who see such nuttiness as signs of genuine faith, enough to overcome their misgivings about him being a former Hindu and the child of immigrants.

But the real clue as to the problems the Republican party faces lies in their puzzling response to the candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Next: The Huckabee puzzle

POST SCRIPT: Hopeful signs of overcoming bigotry

Jed Lewis points out something important.

Let us remember when this election is in the history books that it wasn’t just that majorities of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin and Oregon supported Barack Obama for President, but it was also black voters in Tennessee who overwhelmingly stood up for Stephen Cohen, a white Jewish congressman who was challenged by Nikki Tinker, a black woman who ran a Jew-baiting primary campaign against him.

Tinker thought that black voters wouldn’t support a white Jewish candidate, but they did. She ended up winning only 19% of the vote.

The elections of Barack Obama and Stephen Cohen (who supported each other in their primaries) may not mean that we have overcome. But they do show that we can. And eventually we will.

I really hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of stupid and vicious identity politics.

The future of the Republican Party-4: Palin’s appeal

The radio show This American Life once had an amusing episode about how Americans of Canadian origin somehow immediately know if any person or thing is also Canadian, even if that fact is not at all obvious to anyone else.

David Rakoff . . . claims that there must be a chip in his head — or something like it — that automatically tells him when someone or something famous is Canadian. Lorne Greene? Canadian. The American space shuttle? It has a Canadian-built arm.

The religious right seems to have a similar sixth sense, an antenna that picks up the secret frequency sent out by those like them. While the rest of us were dumbfounded by the Palin choice for vice president and scrambled to try and figure out who she was and what she represented, they immediately sized her up as one of them and embraced her warmly. In the mere five days between her debut as the vice-presidential nominee and her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she had become their darling on whom they pinned their hopes and dreams.

Palin is rural and attended the Pentecostal Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla. Whatever one might think of their religious practices, such as getting into trances and speaking in tongues, one cannot deny that these are true believers. I know because I have relatives who are Pentecostals and they do not take their faith lightly. People who as adults belong to such churches are not your mere do-gooder Christians, those who value their church as primarily social organizations that happen to also give their lives some spiritual meaning. For these people, Jesus is real and present and speaking to them on a regular basis. The rapture and Armageddon are not some laughably goofy ideas but something they look forward to and pin their dearest hopes on.

So when during the campaign news stories and video emerged of Palin being prayed over by a witch-hunting priest who exorcised her of all demons, some of us were aghast at the idea of a political leader actively participating in such rituals, but the true believers were delighted at this evidence of genuine religion. After decades of being strung along by what they viewed as the false prophets of the Republican party, at last they had a true messiah, someone who would lead them to the promised land of a Christianity-based America. Her carrying to term of her Downs syndrome baby and even her teenage daughter’s unwed pregnancy were seen as further evidence that she was not paying mere lip-service to anti-abortion views. (There were always suspicions that the leadership of the Republican party might well allow secret abortions for their own family members while publicly opposing it.)

So Sarah Palin was seen as the real deal for the religious faithful. At last, they had someone who was truly of them. It did not hurt that she was attractive too. This is why the present battle over the direction and leadership of the Republican Party is going to be rather bitter. It is currently being fought over Sarah Palin the person but the real underlying fight is over whether the large voting bloc she represents is going to continue to be in the top leadership of the party.

Those who oppose her point out that she was significantly responsible for the party’s defeat in the last election.

There is evidence that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has hurt McCain with some voters. Fourteen percent of Obama’s supporters say they once supported McCain, and the top reason given for their switch was McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate.

That is a huge number of defections, probably coming from the old-style conservative wing of the Republican party. For such people, these numbers are a compelling argument that in order to build a winning coalition again, the party has to go back to embracing traditional Republican values and not those of the social values bloc. Republican Kathleen Parker who was one of those old-style conservatives who defected from the party at the last election explains the problem.

Mainstream media conservatives are amazed that Palin and her supporters do not recognize what seems to them to be obvious, that she doomed the party and needs to fade away onto obscurity. They cannot believe that she is instead going in the opposite direction, raising her profile even more, giving a hectic round of interviews with all kinds of media outlets and raising the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Meanwhile Joe Biden, her counterpart who actually will become the vice-president, is totally ignored.

Palin is not being delusional in her seemingly feeling that she has a real chance of being the party’s future standard bearer. It all depends on whose opinion you think should matter. A poll taken after the election found that 69% of Republican voters think Palin helped McCain, not hurt him. Furthermore,

Ninety-one percent (91%) of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, including 65% who say their view is Very Favorable. Only eight percent (8%) have an unfavorable view of her, including three percent (3%) Very Unfavorable.

When asked to choose among some of the GOP’s top names for their choice for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, 64% say Palin. The next closest contenders are two former governors and unsuccessful challengers for the presidential nomination this year — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas with 12% support and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 11%.

Given that Palin clearly loves living the high life (her clothes shopping spree is a good clue) and relishes being in the media spotlight, you can be sure that with poll numbers like these within the party, she is not going to disappear into the Alaskan backwoods.

Brace yourself for the new reality series (or soap opera) that is going to last for four years at least: Sarah Palin, Republican sweetheart.

POST SCRIP: Eddie Izzard on Christianity

The future of the Republican Party-3: The social values bloc gets a top spot

There may be a little truth in the belief that culture war issues are losing some of their appeal, and that is a good thing. Looking back, we can see that the Southern strategy based on those culture wars was already losing some steam before the current election. In both the 2000 and 2004 elections the Republicans followed that same path and yet barely hung on to power. The mid-term elections in 2006 saw the Republican party lose its majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, and the presidential election year of 2008 saw the further deterioration of their support, resulting in even larger majorities for the Democrats.
[Read more…]

The future of the Republican Party-1: The Southern strategy

Given the back-to-back defeats of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that have resulted in the Democrats regaining control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there will be deep re-evaluation within the Republican Party about the direction in which they should go. Such evaluations, accompanied by vicious intra-party warfare, are normal for losing parties, especially if the defeats are big ones.

What made this year a little unusual was that the sniping started even before the election was over. The difference may have been due to the fact that this division was over the role of a person than the usual ones of issues or campaign strategy. Sarah Palin, a relative unknown until a few months ago, seemed to be the flashpoint for the early fighting, the dividing line separating the factions. But rather than focus on Palin the person, an admittedly fascinating topic that the media can’t seem to get enough of, it may be more helpful to look at what she represents.

To see how the Palin phenomenon came about and why the warfare within the Republican Party is so vicious, we need to go back a little in history. Modern Republican politics has had at its core the ‘Southern strategy’. This was developed following the bitter battles for desegregation in the 1950s and the early 1960s, many of them occurring in the South, that led to the golden age of civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Congress was outlawing the practice in some which southern states were preventing otherwise qualified African-Americans from voting by having them pass literacy tests in order to register to vote.

These laws were seen as direct rebukes to Southern whites and in signing the second piece of legislation, president Lyndon Johnson is reported to have predicted “There goes the South for a generation.” But the effects actually lasted even longer.

Richard Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy that won him the presidency in 1968 and 1972. It basically exploited the resentment of Southern whites against the Democratic-led civil rights legislation to seal Southern support for Republicans. Once they had secured that large bloc of electoral votes, they then used race and religion-based issues as wedges to divide the rest of the country along cultural fault lines to carve out winning majorities in the electoral college by bringing together two large blocs of people.

One bloc consisted of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be called ‘Rockefeller Republicans’. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, and managerial in their outlook, and less ideological. They believe in the rule of law, a small but responsible and competent government, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. On economics they favor pro-business, lower-tax, fiscal policies and balanced budgets. On personal matters, they tend to oppose the expansions of social welfare programs and be somewhat libertarian in their outlook and believers in individual freedoms. They tended to be well educated and had a sense of noblesse oblige, that although possessed of a sense of entitlement that they were properly the ruling class, they had a responsibility for the welfare of people not as fortunate as themselves.

Allied with this group was the second bloc, those people for whom social issues were paramount, people for whom issues such as abortion, gays, guns, god, and flag were important. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout but they were never the leaders. They were the infantry and junior officer corps of the army, not the top brass. They were thrown the occasional bone to keep them satisfied and in line, but their main role was to get riled up at election time and come out in large numbers to vote for the Republican party. This was done close to election time by raising issues like flag burning, abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, immigration and border fences, and the Ten Commandments. After the election ended and the furor was over, it was scarcely mentioned that nothing much had actually changed on any of these issues, so that they could be resurrected the next election if needed.

So we saw campaign after campaign fought on issues of abortion, god, gays, guns, patriotism, xenophobia, pitting church-going rural people against the supposedly multicultural, non-patriotic urban populations, and setting less-educated working class urban people against supposedly effete sophisticates. And race was always a subtext.

Next: The Southern strategy takes hold.

POST SCRIPT: How right wing talk radio operates

This is a fascinating article by a former local station news director on how right wing talk radio manages to plug away in a coordinated fashion day after day on selected topics and thus controls the political conversation. (Thanks to Digby.)

These radio hosts exploit and perpetuate the sense of victimhood of their listeners.

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.
. . .
[T]he key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners.

The audience for these shows is a lot more diverse than is commonly thought.

The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads.

These hosts actually do get daily memos about what to talk about and what point of view to take, so that a coordinated message can be promoted.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

You really need to read the whole thing to see in detail how the system works.

Election analysis-7: The Obama campaign

While there may not have been much consistency in the McCain camp’s strategy, there was no doubt about Obama’s. Taking advantage of president Bush’s abysmal approval ratings, the Obama campaign steadily plugged away at hanging Bush around McCain’s neck. Bush has the unenviable record of being the most unpopular president in history. People were repeatedly reminded that Bush has been an awful president, who has got the nation stuck in two interminable wars while the economy soured, and that McCain represented a continuation of those policies while Obama represented a new direction.

While other issues have also been raised on the periphery, they have not been contradictory to the main message. Bush has been criticized for his tax cuts for the wealthy and McCain’s present support for those cuts has been used to tie him even more closely to Bush. McCain has been linked to Bush’s policies favoring big corporations. And who among us haven’t heard hundreds of times the repetition of McCain’s own proud statement from earlier days that he voted over 90% with Bush? We have also repeatedly seen the photos of Bush and McCain awkwardly embracing, with McCain in a subservient pose, further solidifying the image of McCain as a Bush acolyte.

McCain’s desperate need to try and remove the Bush albatross from around his neck can be seen in his statement in the last debate that he was not Bush and that if Obama wanted to run against Bush then he should have run in 2004. That was a good line that got appreciative laughter from the audience but it also was a reminder of how successful Obama was in linking McCain to Bush. McCain at one point even tried to argue that it was Obama who would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies, a truly pathetic attempt to separate himself from Bush.

McCain’s attempts to emerge from Bush’s shadow failed.

McCain has not been helped by his association with President Bush, the poll suggests. Fifty-four percent of voters think McCain would continue Mr. Bush’s policies, and the president is extremely unpopular: his approval rating now stands at 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a president. His disapproval rating of 72 percent matches his all-time high, first reached last month.

McCain gave the Obama camp some additional openings. By picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate without proper vetting, McCain opened himself up to the charge of being reckless with the nation’s security, lacking good judgment, and being impulsive. By ‘suspending’ his campaign during the financial crisis and even threatening to skip the first debate because of it, he opened himself to the charge of being erratic and incapable of keeping on top of multiple issues, and reinforced the image that he was impulsive.

All these things enabled the Obama campaign to raise questions about whether McCain had the required temperament for the office he was seeking. But unlike the changes in the McCain campaign strategy where new messages sometimes undercut the old, these multiple new charges against McCain could be layered on to the basic idea, without contradicting or distracting voters from the core message that McCain would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies.

The Obama campaign was not perfect. But they were steady. They seemed to have a carefully thought out plan and they stuck with it. Even in the immediate post-Palin period when they lost their lead in the polls, they did not seem to panic but simply rode out that setback.

One could see the organization early on in the primaries where they skillfully pulled out a win in the Iowa caucuses based on sheer organization and grass-roots effort, seriously denting Hillary Clinton’s image as the inevitable candidate. They stumbled badly in New Hampshire but learned enough from that to regroup and forge ahead.

Their success in winning the Democratic nomination was in carefully exploiting the delegate awarding rules for each state that were mostly based not on winner-take-all but on a district-by-district basis. By aiming to win even by a tiny amount all those districts which had an odd number of delegates, and avoiding big-margin defeats in districts that had an even number of delegates, they were able to rack up good delegate counts even when they were losing state voter totals overall.

Once they had the nomination, I think they realized that this was the Democratic Party’s election to lose. Bush and the Republicans were so unpopular, and the two wars and the sour economy were such millstones around that party’s neck, that as long as the Democrats stayed focused and calm did not make a big blunder, they would win. I think that the lack of traction of the Jeremiah Wright issue convinced the Obama camp long before the rest of us (including me) that race was going to be a relatively minor factor.

What was impressive about them was their message discipline. They stuck to their story whether the polls went up or down. In this they were aided by the fact that they kept the media focus on Obama and not on the campaign surrogates, and Obama is a very disciplined speaker. It was telling that even though I follow politics closely, and knew that Obama’s close campaign advisors and managers were David Plouffe and David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, I had never seen them on TV or in YouTube clips until election night and had no idea until then what they even looked like. In contrast, I had seen McCain’s campaign staff repeatedly all over the place.

The more surrogates that you have speaking for you, the more mistakes that get made and mixed messages that get sent and the public gets confused. The McCain campaign was overflowing with surrogates and pseudo-surrogates like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder, some of them saying outrageous things that drew attention to themselves rather than to the candidate they were supposed to be promoting.

It was after the selection of Joe Biden that the Democrats started going off-message since some media attention began to be focused on him. My impression of Biden is of a rather shallow man, someone who is not a deep thinker but wants to be thought of as profound and loves the sound of his own voice. Such people are liable to say stupid things in trying to impress audiences and this proved to be the case as he committed some gaffes here and there. But it was too late to help the McCain campaign. Compared to the Palin disaster, Biden, for all his faults, seemed like a brilliant choice.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and California’s Proposition 8

California’s anti-gay proposition 8 passed due to support from blacks, Republicans, conservatives, and older people and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. A lot of the funding for the antigay effort came from the Mormons, even though most of them don’t even live in California.

This has aroused renewed interest in that religion and why they might hate gays so much. This article describes how the Mormon religion arose from the fertile imagination of a person who mixed together three elements that were intriguing the people of his time.

Election analysis-6: McCain’s last ditch attempts

The next attempt was to try and portray Obama as the dangerous and unknown ‘other’, the man with the mysterious past, who consorted with ‘terrorists’, had a strange and Muslim name, unusual and partly foreign family history, who had associated with a pastor who had called upon god to damn America, and so on. The McCain campaign did not identify Obama as the anti-Christ, but one can be sure that some of their fervid religious supporters were doing so. All these were attempts to portray him as someone ‘not like us’, “who does not see America as we do” (to use Sarah Palin’s words), whose loyalties were suspect.

While this was a totally despicable tactic, another problem is that it was hard at this late stage to make the charge stick that Obama was a dangerous, wild-eyed, Marxist, Islamic, terrorist. After all, the country had seen him for almost two years and over twenty debates looking calm and self-assured and surrounded by establishment figures like Warren Buffett, responding with a steady hand to the financial crises and other issues as they came up.

Even strong McCain supporter Charles Krauthammer had to concede that Obama seems so unflappable that even if a grenade went off in the room he would still manage to complete his thoughts in a coherent way. Such coolness does not jibe with the idea of a wild-eyed radical.

The next-to-latest message, when it seemed almost certain that McCain was going to lose, was to argue that a divided government is good for America and since the Congress is assuredly going to be in Democratic hands, people should vote in a Republican president to thwart any action. ‘Vote for a stalemated government’ is not an inspiring message, to put it mildly. Furthermore, while it may have some appeal in good times when people don’t want the government to mess things up, when times are seen as tough as they are now, people want things to happen and to have decisive action. They want things to change and stalemate and gridlock is the last thing on their wish list.

The very last message was a weird one that emerged at the end of the campaign. It was alleged by McCain and Palin that Obama was going to bankrupt the coal industry. Even I, who have the luxury of being able to follow politics fairly closely, was baffled by what they were getting at and had to do some digging to find out what was going on. It turns out that this is a piece of esoteric politics, involving some consequences of cap-and-trade greenhouse gas environmental policies. Furthermore, Obama’s policies on this issue are similar to ones that McCain has supported in the past and for which he was also accused of bankrupting the coal industry.

Did the McCain camp really think that the state of the coal industry was an attention grabber in the last few days before the election? How many people would know or care about the workings of the coal industry? It was quite surreal. The only reason I could think of for bringing this up at this late stage was that he hoped it would get some votes in the coal mining Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states on which the McCain-Palin camp was pinning its hopes.

The problem for the McCain camp has been that each of these alternative messages seem to have been developed on the fly, not thought through, and not given much chance to take hold. If a new message did not produce quick results, it was summarily abandoned and a new message promoted. This rapid fire switching gave the impression of a campaign lurching from issue to issue and gave the Obama camp the opportunity to hammer home the message that McCain is erratic and impulsive.

Also, some of the messages contradicted each other and led to confusion, not a good thing when you are trying to define your opponent negatively. After all, how can you say that Obama is an arugula eating, country club, Hollywood-style, elitist celebrity, while at the same time that that he is a Marxist terrorist sympathizer? How can he be the faithful follower of a ‘dangerous’ Christian minister Jeremiah Wright while also being a Muslim? To successfully pull off such successful double lives would require Obama to have the skills of The Scarlet Pimpernel or Raffles.

It was not surprising that none of these scattershot attacks on Obama worked. If you seek to define someone negatively, it has to be done early in the campaign and have at least some basis in reality while your opponent is still a blank slate in the minds of voters. Once people have formed their own impressions, it is hard to change them.

It is telling that even at the end, the lack of experience issue was still the major concern that some people had about Obama, suggesting that it had always been the McCain’s strongest argument. This charge had some factual basis and was introduced early enough to be a defining issue for many voters. But now those concerns were superceded by even greater concerns about Palin’s lack experience.

McCain had problems from the start. Bush and the Republicans were deeply unpopular. The drop in violence in Iraq, rather than benefiting him as someone who had strongly supported the surge, had the effect of taking Iraq out of the news and becoming a non-issue. The economic crisis arrived at a bad time, focusing attention on his own admitted weak spot.

But when the history of this campaign is written, I suspect that the direct and indirect fallout from the Palin selection will loom large as the one single event that caused his campaign to lose focus and stumble.

POST SCRIPT: Palin and Africa – Getting even weirder

Remember the Fox News report quoting an anonymous aide to McCain who said that Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent? Palin’s followers were outraged by this leak and demanded the leaker be identified and punished.

Well, a McCain aide “Martin Eisenstadt” did admit to the leak but it turns out that his whole character is a hoax. He was also responsible for the false story that Joe the Plumber was related to Charles Keating, which I mentioned on my blog.

A knowledgeable commenter Samantha, who says she is a freelance reporter for the BBC and seems to know a lot about “Eisenstadt’s” history, mentioned this hoaxer in a comment on this post. She has been following “Eisenstadt” and if you click on her name it will take you to some really interesting stuff where she interviews him.

What is still not clear from this latest story from the New York Times is what is the hoax: the actual story that Palin did not know that Africa was a country, or the claim that “Eisenstadt” is the leaker. The article is not precise on this.

Election analysis-5: The Obama as Marxist-Socialist gambit

The next lurch in the McCain campaign message came with Joe the plumber and the ‘spreading the wealth’ issue. The progressive tax code advocated by Obama has been long standing policy in the US, but abruptly became transformed into a symbol of socialism. Suddenly Obama became a Marxist, the one who wanted take money away from hard-working people and give it to shiftless loafers.

To work, this message depends on hiding the history of tax policy in the US and fostering the false assumption that the amount of one’s income directly correlates with the amount of work one does, so that taxing rich people more and poor people less can be equated with taking money from hard working people and giving it to other people. It also has racial undertones since ‘hardworking Americans’ in this context is often code for white working class people, and ‘other people’ is code for people not willing to work as hard, which is code for welfare recipients, which is code for ‘black’.

It was at this point that the McCain campaign descended into farce. I have seen campaigns in which ordinary people became symbols for points that the candidates wanted to make. But I have never seen a campaign where such people are plucked from obscurity and become transformed into actual spokespersons for the campaign, traveling along with the candidate to various events, appearing at rallies, and on TV to speak as surrogates on behalf of the campaign, as Joe the plumber and later Tito the builder did.

It was quite an amazing thing to see McCain and Palin depend so heavily on Joe the Plumber and the crowds chanting his name. Joe and Tito played the lead roles in a huge cast of characters characterized by first names and occupations. It became yet another joke with references sprouting to George the president, Dick the hunter, Ben the banker, and so on.

McCain again went overboard in his praise, describing Joe as “an American hero, a great citizen of Ohio and my role model.” Someone he met for the first time a few weeks ago and whom he barely knows is now a ‘hero’ and his role model on the basis of a single question he asked Obama?

But apart from the absurdity of promoting people you have plucked out of the crowd into speaking for you, it also carries a risk. Like with Sarah Palin, there may be lots of things in such people’s lives that may be embarrassing but you don’t know about, and such political novices are also likely to commit huge gaffes. It did not help when Joe made the preposterous claim without a shred of evidence that Obama’s election would bring ‘death to Israel’.

It was also later revealed that Joe’s family had to go on welfare on two occasions and he had to concede that the welfare system was what enabled them survive temporary adversity and raise themselves into the middle class. So he had personally benefited from the very policies that he now condemned as Marxism.

The attempt by the McCain camp to take Obama’s ‘spreading the wealth’ response to Joe the Plumber and make into a major campaign weapon against Obama proved to be a total bust. The Joe the Plumber gambit seemed to indicate that there were no limits to McCain’s willingness to debase himself. In its desperation to find a winning message, the campaign was becoming a joke.

The problem with this strategy is that McCain seemed to think that the views of the people in the immensely wealthy circle he moves in represent the views of most people. It turns out that most people are not as horrified at the idea of ‘spreading the wealth’ as McCain and Palin seem to think they are. This question has been repeatedly polled and the results are fairly consistent.

Across the nine times the question has been asked, a majority of Americans have agreed with the thought that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. The current 58% who agree is one of the two lowest percentages Gallup has measured (along with a 56% reading in September 2000). Sixty-eight percent agreed in April of this year and 66% in April 2007.

In fact, one of the biggest champions of the progressive tax code is one of the conservative heroes, someone McCain likes to quote a lot, that well-known Communist president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt also strongly supported the estate tax on inheritances, which the very rich in this country have been strongly campaigning to kill by calling it a ‘death tax’.

The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

The progressive income tax is as American as apple pie.

POST SCRIPT: Campaign withdrawal pains

The Onion News Network reports on the disturbing phenomenon of Obama campaign workers struggling to find new meaning for their lives.

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Election analysis-4: McCain-Palin as the agents of change?

The initial shock and euphoria that accompanied the Palin choice was followed by intense curiosity about this new star that had suddenly burst onto the political scene. But this was not all for the good. The focus abruptly shifted from Obama’a experience (or lack of it) to Palin’s lack of experience. The concerns about Palin’s readiness to be president also brought to the surface the latent worries about McCain’s age and health. And the answers people were receiving were not reassuring.

Starting about a week after the Palin selection, McCain’s poll numbers started to fall steeply and on September 17, Obama took the lead again and never relinquished it, steadily gaining with time.

Palin did not help matters by her own overreaching, especially her claims that she had said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the infamous ‘bridge to nowhere’ and that the proximity of her state to Russia gave her some foreign policy credentials. The first claim was shown to be false and the second was widely ridiculed, always a bad sign. Her inability to speak and think coherently, or even in complete sentences without a script, and the campaign’s careful shielding of her from the press resulted in her early luster rapidly becoming tarnished. Amazingly, she went through the entire campaign without giving a press conference.

Furthermore, McCain, as is his wont when defending his decisions, tended to go overboard in his praise, making absurd claims and opening himself up for ridicule as well. For example, he recently said of Palin in an interview with Don Imus that “she’s the most qualified of any that [sic] who has run recently for vice president.” Really? More so that Dick Cheney? Or Al Gore? Or George H. W. Bush? Or even his best buddy Joe Lieberman, who was reportedly his own first choice before he was nixed by McCain’s advisors?

Another example of going overboard was when McCain said that Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America” even as she babbles incoherently on that very topic.

Once the experience argument was seen to be not working anymore, the McCain camp struggled to find another winning message and it is their inability to stick with one new alternative message that has given the impression of them flailing around.

The first attempt was to try and co-opt Obama’s successful theme of change which took advantage of the fact that people are well and truly sick of president Bush and think the country is headed in the wrong direction. McCain’s careful cultivation of his own image as a maverick was hitched to Palin’s outsider status and rural outdoorsy persona to create the idea of a pair of reformers, willing to buck the political system to bring much-needed reform in government. But trying to portray McCain and Palin as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid agents of mavericky change was a hard sell when plenty of evidence existed of McCain warmly embracing Bush, both literally and in terms of policies.

Trying to co-opt the mantle of change was simply not working either.

Mr. McCain’s renewed efforts to cast himself as the candidate of change have apparently faltered. Sixty-four percent of voters polled said Mr. Obama would bring about real change if elected, while only 39 percent said Mr. McCain would. And despite Mr. McCain’s increased efforts to distance himself from President Bush, a majority still said he would generally continue Mr. Bush’s policies.

Given that Obama had for a year and a half been plugging away at the theme that he would bring about change and had been tying Bush around the neck of McCain, to try and reverse public perceptions at this late stage was an uphill task and the campaign looked around for some other message to try as well.

Next: Another new star is born: Joe the Plumber.
POST SCRIPT: The country music menace

In an article published in the journal Social Forces (Vol. 71, No. 1, September 1992, pp. 211-218), Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach report on a study on the effect of country music on suicide.

The abstract of the article concludes:

This article assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates. Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty, and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates.

So, country music lovers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Election analysis-3: The fallout from the Palin selection

Soon after the selection of Sarah Palin, it quickly became clear to almost everyone that McCain and his campaign team knew hardly anything about her and had not vetted her carefully before selecting her. This was extraordinary considering that McCain had sewn up the Republican nomination by early March, giving him about six months to carefully think about whom he wanted to be vice president. To wait until the last minute and impulsively do something so important seemed evidence of a lackadaisical approach to governing.
[Read more…]

Election analysis-2: The Palin mistake

I think it is true that vice presidents by themselves do not lose or win campaigns. It might be tempting for some McCain supporters to put all the blame for their loss on Palin, but that would not be fair. It is true that she did reveal herself to be out of her depth and made some serious missteps, but Dan Quayle faced similar doubts about his abilities and yet the Bush-Quayle ticket won quite handily in 1988, by a margin of close to 8 points, which these days would be considered a landslide.

But while Palin may not have directly been the main cause of the McCain loss, I think that she did contribute substantially in an indirect way, by derailing the McCain campaign theme of the importance of experience, and they never seemed to recover from that.

The process began with the Democratic convention August 25-28, with Obama’s speech to a huge crowd at the football stadium in Denver bringing the Democratic convention to a rousing finale. Obama’s poll numbers went up by five points and he had a 6 point lead by September 1, as he got the usual benefit of a week of highly choreographed convention puffery designed to put him in the best light.

For some reason, rather than viewing Obama’s rise to a six-point lead in the polls at the end of August as the usual temporary boost arising from a smooth party convention, and waiting to see if it would be eclipsed by their own convention and bounce the following week, the McCain camp seemed to panic and feel that the election was slipping out of their grasp. And this led to the first, and I believe ultimately fatal, mistake from which the McCain camp never recovered.

They seemed to want to, with one single move, grab the headlines, erase the lead, and wipe out all the positive images of the Democratic convention and so, on August 29, they made the surprising announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, announcing it the day after Obama’s speech.

This tactic undoubtedly worked in the short run. It created a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Republican convention held September 1-4, and overshadowed the positive coverage of Obama’s speech, just as they must have hoped it would do. During the week of the Republican convention and just after, McCain’s numbers shot up rapidly to 48% by September 8, giving him a 3-point lead over the rapidly falling Obama, and a 9-point overall swing towards McCain in just one week.

How much of this was due to Palin and how much McCain might have got anyway simply due to the nature of convention bounces is not clear. But Palin undoubtedly helped. She clearly ignited the passions of the party faithful. Suddenly the Republican party rallies, formerly lackluster affairs struggling to draw big crowds, became boisterous and enthusiastic, with packed audiences cheering loudly.

It looked like they had hit on a winning combination: McCain’s experience and Palin’s looks and crowd appeal, all mixed in with her down-home outsider status. The two of them were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, going to ride into Washington, clean up the mess, and solve all the country’s problems.

Looking back, this was the high point of the McCain campaign.

But as I wrote back on September 3 during the Republican convention, the Palin choice seemed to me like one of those ideas that seem brilliant at first and can be intoxicating but leave a long and deep hangover. It is one of the very few times when I have made a political prediction that turned out to be correct, so forgive me for quoting myself on it.

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

While the immediate aftermath of the choice and the McCain-Palin ticket’s rise in the polls seemed to prove me wrong, later events revealed that the choice was indeed a mistake. While the initial response to the choice of Palin was tremendously positive, it turned out that the price McCain paid for it was too high because, as I pointed out at the time, by selecting Palin, he had unilaterally disarmed himself of the main arrow in his quiver, that of the message of greater experience which, while not exciting, seemed to have been working for him. McCain could no longer plausibly argue that experience is the most important factor in selecting a president because he had clearly not thought it that important in selecting his own vice president.

The Palin selection started what turned out to be an irreversible decline in McCain’s fortunes because of the lack of a plausible alternative to the now abandoned message of experience.

Next: The Palin fallout

POST SCRIPT: Africa is a continent? Who knew?

Fox News tells us that Sarah Palin is planning to run for president in 2012. But more revealingly, it also reports on why the McCain camp did not want to have Sarah Palin give any press conferences and highly restricted her unscripted appearances.

So the McCain camp realized almost immediately that she could not handle the job but pretended she could. It makes a mockery of their campaign pitch that they were the ones who put country first.

This is going to get ugly. Palin supporters are taking names of those who are leaking damaging information about their idol, and vowing revenge.