‘The moral elements,” Clausewitz wrote, “are among the most important in war.” He was talking about such things as morale, confidence, and devotion to a cause. With a moral advantage, an outnumbered force may win a surprise victory. Without it, well-equipped legions may go down to defeat.
That’s the significance of Palin’s debate performance. After all the lousy news of recent weeks, Republicans were starting to get gloomy. Mostly because of financial turmoil, Obama’s lead in the polls edged upward. McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign failed to have the desired effect, and his position on the Paulson plan put him at odds with many Republicans. Palin herself contributed to the gloom by giving awkward interviews on television.
On the morning of the debate, NBC’s Chuck Todd came close to declaring the race to be over: “All the trend lines are pointing in Obama’s direction. . . . [Pointing to a series of battleground-state polls] This should really scare the McCain campaign. This thing — it’s at a tipping point.” There was speculation that a poor Palin performance could decisively tip the election to Obama. Her supporters held their breath.
A few minutes after she walked onto the stage, they could exhale. They were watching the poised and feisty Palin of the Republican convention, not the hesitant Palin of the Gibson and Couric shows. The election wasn’t over yet.
She bolstered Republican morale in other ways, too. In politics as in war, you have to rally the troops against an opponent. You also have to pick the right target. Focusing her fire on Biden would not have helped much, since most Republicans don’t have strong feelings about him. Instead, she went after the One. During the debate, she nodded to Biden while throwing verbal daggers at Obama:
“Barack Obama voted against funding troops there after promising that he would not do so. And Sen. Biden, I respected you when you called him out on that. You said that his vote was political and you said it would cost lives.”
“You also said that Barack Obama was not ready to be commander in chief. And I know again that you opposed the move he made to try to cut off funding for the troops and I respect you for that.”
As she did at the Republican convention, she reminded people at the grassroots that she is one of them. “I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington, D.C.” Once again, the liberal elites will sneer at her background as a hockey mom and small-town mayor. The more they sneer, the more they’ll fire up the Republican volunteers.
Nothing in politics touches Republicans as deeply as the memory of Ronald Reagan. A few weeks ago, Michael Reagan made a remarkable comment: “Wednesday night I watched the Republican National Convention on television and there, before my very eyes, I saw my Dad reborn; only this time he’s a she.” By making this comparison, he perhaps said more than he realized. The Gipper did not always shine in debates and press conferences. He made mistakes that worried his aides and political allies. Still, he had a way of coming back and reenergizing the ranks.
In the debate, Palin summoned up the spirit of the comeback Reagan. She invoked his name and even adapted his most famous debate line when she said: “Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again.”
So Republicans again have something to cheer about. In such a hostile political climate, they will need it.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.