EDITOR’S NOTE: This week — as we cover the Republican convention in St. Paul, we will have a different publishing schedule, sending you ENPR twice a week: on Monday and Friday. Here’s today’s GOP preview: please expect a recap on Friday, 9/5. After that, we’ll return to normal.
SPECIAL ENPR REPUBLICAN CONVENTION PREVIEW
- Republican spirits were buoyed immensely by Sen. John McCain‘s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. A convention that threatened to lack all enthusiasm now holds the possibility of catapulting McCain ahead of Obama.
- The most important part of the week will be Palin’s speech on Wednesday night. Given her potential upsides and potential downsides, she could affect the fate of the ticket more than most running mates.
- Gustav will dim the GOP infomercial, but that may not be too bad. Republicans were never going to perform as well as the Democrats did last week.
- Polls do not yet show an Obama bounce. A clear picture of the race will not begin to emerge until next week.
Republican Convention Preview
Palin: Derided by Democrats as "desperate" and "bizarre," and celebrated by conservative activists as redemption for McCain, the Palin pick is certainly a high-risk/high-reward decision.
- Conservative enthusiasm for McCain’s choice cannot be overstated. The mood in Minneapolis over the weekend was giddy, and the talk among delegates and conservative activists focused almost exclusively on Palin. Support for her was nearly unanimous. McCain needed to energize the base, and he had no time to waste. He did it.
- Picking a brand-new governor whose previous job was small-town mayor in a far-off state has serious potential downsides. For one, it somewhat de-fangs the attack that Obama is not ready to lead—which was the entire message of the GOP counter-convention operation in Denver last week. On the other hand, if Republicans drop that attack, the worries about Obama’s inexperience will probably persist in voters’ minds, and a running mate’s inexperience won’t be as important.
- Palin not only plucks the pro-life and conservative strings in the GOP base, but she also hits the reform note that has gotten louder among GOP dissidents following the party’s spending binge in Washington and crushing defeat in 2006. McCain’s reform message, criticism of ethanol and sugar subsidies, and crusades against pork and waste were his strong points in the eyes of the base. Palin multiplies those virtues, standing in rebuke to the old guard of the GOP.
- Her sex introduces many important dynamics to this race. First, however, it is important to understand that she will have very limited reach into the pool of former supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Some female Clinton voters—not likely a significant number—were already considering a vote for McCain, and this pick could solidify their leanings. Will conservative female turnout increase? If McCain can get 49% of the female vote, he will win, but there are no early signs that Palin will have such an impact.
- Being female can have its advantages in the campaign. Recall Hillary Clinton’s ability to make herself a victim in her 2000 Senate race and in the 2008 primary. There are just as many disadvantages: Journalists and rivals critiquing female politicians are apt to focus on appearance, get petty and personal, and otherwise be nasty in ways they would not with male politicians. Liberal and Democratic agitation about this pick presage some ugly attacks. Depending on who makes them, this could spin to Palin’s advantage.
- Domestic drilling could be elevated as an issue. Sen. Joe Biden, for example, opposed construction of the Alaska pipeline, and Palin can speak with some authority on that topic. Capitol Hill Republicans—seeing domestic drilling as perhaps their only winning issue—have hit that issue hard and continuously. Palin could heighten the emphasis.
- An awkward aspect of the drilling-Alaska connection: McCain has famously opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of his most prominent "maverick" stances. If he switches now, it will confirm the Democratic theme that "candidate McCain" has abandoned the principles of "Senator McCain." In the platform debate last week, however, the McCain team held firm in opposing support for drilling in ANWR.
- Other downsides: The pick is nakedly political. The two politicians barely know one another. That she is ready to be President is a tough sell. It is well known that McCain wanted to pick Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.). That he picked Palin, under duress from dissident conservatives, ought to dampen conservative enthusiasm about the pick—but so far it hasn’t.
- Interestingly, the only dissatisfaction we have encountered with the Palin pick comes from Alaska delegates. Many of them are part of the party establishment, toward which Palin is something of a scourge. As of Saturday night, the delegation had not had its seating position on the convention floor improved.
- Palin’s Wednesday night address will be the most important speech of either convention. If she comes across as competent and likable, John McCain could certainly surge ahead in the polls by next week.
Platform: The McCain campaign’s eagerness to pull in conservatives extended to the committee drafting the Republican platform, where campaign operatives largely deferred to conservative amendments to the platform, other than, as noted on ANWR.
- Four years ago, Karl Rove steered the platform with a heavy hand, striking down conservative pushes on education, immigration, the size of government, and even on abortion. This year was a completely different story, according to conservatives involved in the process.
- One long-time platform warrior described the final outcome as "total victory"—citing conservative advances on immigration, stem-cell research, and others.
- The McCain campaign, according to platform committee members, deferred to conservative amendments and "wanted the platform to be more conservative" than the first draft, last year’s platform, and than McCain’s own record.
- McCain’s campaign used the platform as a rallying tool for conservatives, adding to the new spark of enthusiasm among the party faithful.
Republicans: Responding to the compelling rock concert of a convention in Denver, Republicans have their work cut out for them. Palin helps immensely, but will they find a compelling, cohesive message? The impact of Hurricane Gustav (certainly a significant impact) remains uncertain.
- McCain simply is not as good a speaker as Obama, and there will be no football stadium Rose Garden spectacle. Republican enthusiasm, while buoyed, will not equal Democratic enthusiasm. Republicans have no superstars matching the caliber of the Clintons, and no tension-and-resolution play like the unification of the party.
- President Bush‘s decision to skip the convention to tend to matters on the Gulf Coast carries the peripheral benefit of clearing McCain of the Bush stain. Of course, media attention focusing on this advantage—and suggesting cynical motives for the decision—could mitigate the gain.
- The storm itself is already causing problems. Pictures of flooded-out black people in New Orleans juxtaposed to white Republicans in suits partying it up could be disastrous. Whatever the Bush Administration reaction and the government response to the storm, Democrats will use the suffering down there to distract from McCain and impugn the GOP.
- Polls show mixed results going into the convention. If McCain leads coming out of his convention, that spells very bad news for Obama. If Democrats succeed in making this a week of bad news—attacks on Palin, attention to the storm, attention on President Bush—Obama could finally move into a real lead.