The NFL blackout rule is notorious. Since 1973, any game that has not been sold out 72 hours in advance may not be broadcast on television in its own regional area. The stated theory is to pressure fans into buying tickets, to give the stay-at-homes some get-up-and-go. In truth, another reason is equally important: it is not good business to let home viewers look at their team on TV surrounded by empty seats. It creates a powerful psychological impression of an unsuccessful franchise.
In Green Bay, Wis., one of the greatest football venues in this country, John McCain and Sarah Palin played to a full arena. Just a week later, Barack Obama arrived, and could only load the hall up to about half of capacity. For the first time this entire campaign season, we are seeing photos of Obama shouting into the void, looking for votes under empty seats. What does this mean in real terms for the election? It means that Obama is losing steam, and that his, in likelihood, is the losing team.
Why so? There is an old joke about the old man who calls his wife darling, sweetheart, honey, until people are moved to remark how romantic he is after fifty years of marriage. He is afraid to tell anyone the real reason: he forgot his wife’s name a few years ago. In Obama’s case, his name recognition has been neutralized. The novelty of the man with the African name, with the interesting racial heritage, with the difficult cosmopolitan childhood, with the astonishing rise to prominence, has been trumped by Sarah Palin, who comes from Alaska, is married to an Eskimo, has a child with Down’s syndrome, and went from PTA mom to governor to national candidate.
Pundits of various stripes, including some Republican ones, are grumbling that she is lacking in a number of areas of governance and experience and communication, that she is not better than the other guy and might in some ways be worse. In theoretical terms, from an abstract perspective, they may not be far wrong. But politically, they miss the point entirely. Her job is not to outshine anyone on either side. Her job is to eliminate history-making as a motive for casting a ballot. You can now vote for either party without thwarting “progress.”
This forces Palin’s opponents to use the same strategy they employed against Clarence Thomas: “You may look black but you are not really black.” Critics snipe from the left to the effect that Palin is not an authentic female. That sort of rhetoric may work for Sarah Bernhard on stage in man-hatin’ Manhattan, New York, but it will not sell to the PTA mothers in Manhattan, Kansas.
At the end of the day, the election involves Palin only as a subtext. John McCain is running against Barack Obama, and it is never real easy to pull the lever for an old guy who has been on the political scene since the days his Navy bell-bottoms were all the rage. When you see stadia brimming to the rafters with Obama’s eager acolytes, it is hard not to feel like the times are changing and leaving you behind. No more. Now it is Palin drawing larger turnouts, and that takes the air out of Obama’s sails.
Take his hype away, watch him play to empty seats, and suddenly his hope dwindles too, and he looks like an empty suit. A youngster with no legislative achievements, a strictly partisan voter at every level of government, he can only look imposing from the perspective of his advancing history. Give me the chance to get my history fix from Sarah Palin, while putting an old warrior like McCain at the helm, and I can see no defensible reason outside party affiliation for Obama to get a single vote.
The polls are not showing the extent of Obama’s slide just yet, but I suspect they will be a less reliable indicator in this election than empty seats in Green Bay. Even Democrats are beginning to look askance at this amateur who conned them into letting him be their man. It’s like that gag about the lady who accosts a young man at the bus stop. “Remember me? I was at your bar-mitzvah.”
“But I’m not even Jewish!"
“What? Then give me back my present.”