Politics & Policy

Following ‘Caribou Barbie’

Why McCain's acceptance speech worked.

St. Paul – On Wednesday, I headed between events from Minneapolis to Saint Paul, driven by a woman named Kimberly. She was white, a mom in her late 40s, with a tattoo on her forearm and a mild Minnesota accent. She did not look like a typical Republican voter. She certainly was nothing like the party faithful who had flocked to her town.

I asked her what she thought of the convention, and she complained about the protesters who had come in from outside, breaking things and hurting business. “That’s just dumb,” she said. “There’s a perfectly fine way to protest, and they have to come here and act like idiots.”

Then she went on: “I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I haven’t been watching the stuff at the convention. But what really upsets me is the way they’re treating this woman.”

“You mean Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska?”

“Yes. I can’t even watch my television anymore with what they’re doing to her. It’s just awful.”

Kimberly was expressing Americans’ fundamental sense of decency and fair play — perhaps also the frustration of watching a woman subjected to an unfair double standard. This week, the false left-wing Internet rumors about Sarah Palin — about how her youngest son is actually her daughter’s baby, about how she was an Alaska secessionist — were as unworthy of the attention of the mainstream media as any claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Yet they received that attention anyway, with some especially irresponsible tidbits seeing print. Reporters suddenly acquired a heretofore absent interest in obtaining birth certificates. The New York Times had to retract Elizabeth Bumiller’s story about the Alaska Independence Party (which is not a secessionist party), but Bumiller still stands by her story.

In the Washington Post, a respected reporter noted disapprovingly that Palin had “slashed” funds for a program benefiting pregnant teens. He failed to mention the relevant fact that she was using her line-item veto power to quadruple funds for the program instead of quintupling them.

In 2000, Palin endorsed and campaigned for Steve Forbes for president. This week, Obama’s campaign spokesman and Obama’s surrogate, Rep. Robert Wexler (D., Fla.), falsely stated that Palin had supported Pat Buchanan for president in 2000. Wexler then smeared her and Buchanan by calling her a “Nazi sympathizer” on those grounds. The Nation and MSNBC reported the Obama campaigners’ false statements as fact. CNN posted a picture of Palin at the rostrum in this pose.

On the Internet, leftists took to calling her “Caribou Barbie.” Commentators chimed in with such brilliant questions as “Don’t they have birth control up in Alaska?” A radio interview with Palin surfaced in which she discussed a petty, last-minute attempt by Lyda Green — the Republican state Senate leader and Palin’s political enemy — to change the time of this year’s state of the state address. The schedule had been set well in advance, but Green cited a transparently bogus scheduling conflict in an attempt to force the speech to a time that would have prevented Palin from attending her son’s graduation. In that context, Palin let loose a small giggle when the radio host called Green a “bitch.”

I spoke with three Alaskans about these issues at the convention on Wednesday. One was Randy Ruedrich, the man Palin had removed from the Alaskan Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for unethical behavior and whom she has tried repeatedly to remove as state party chairman. One of his companions, a young woman, piped up immediately: “Well, Lyda Green is a bitch.”

Some scrutiny of Palin is appropriate — the Lyda Green incident included. But what we have seen stands in stark contrast with the failure by the media to examine or even mention Barack Obama’s self-serving collaboration in Chicago’s political corruption. MSNBC and The Nation seem unlikely to discuss Obama’s endorsement — only last year – of a self-dealing Chicago alderman who once pulled a gun on her colleagues during a redistricting hearing. For all that, the worst piece of legitimate dirt on Palin appears to be that she might have intervened improperly to fire a law officer who had used a taser on his ten-year-old stepson.

Except among the Left’s harshest partisans, “Caribou Barbie” erased serious doubts of her competence with her excellent speech of Wednesday night. It was an impossible act for John McCain to follow — and indeed, conservatives at the convention were dissatisfied with his performance.

“That was a speech on compromise — compromise, not confrontation,” said John McLane, a conservative activist from Indianapolis who attended the convention as a guest. Although he seemed to disapprove already, I asked him what he thought about it. “I’m a Reagan Republican,” he replied gruffly.

And he was right. But McCain is not a Reagan Republican, and his speech of last night was not aimed at people already won over. It was aimed at Kimberly the driver, and at other Americans who not only lack the ideological grounding of the Reagan revolution, but also view the party of Reagan as a damaged brand. For them, the GOP’s positive and successful ideals are less visible than recent Republican corruption and incompetence in government.

People like Kimberly will probably not notice if John McCain turns out to be unexpectedly conservative or liberal, but they are weary of the rancor and self-dealing of the political class — the smears, the blind partisanship, the lack of civil discourse. As McCain put it when one of the graceless left-wing protesters disrupted his speech, “Americans want us to stop shouting at each other.

Obama has spent hundreds of millions of dollars branding himself as the solution to this real need for change that Americans feel. That he is just cynically exploiting this need is evident from his true record of working against bipartisan reformers in Chicago, of governing in order to benefit his friends and himself, of calling his critics names, and of embracing corporate interests in Washington that feed off the American taxpayer.

This is why John McCain had to brand himself as something different — someone who actually fulfills the need that makes many Americans susceptible to Obama’s false promises. Is McCain really that different something — the real healer, uniter, and agent of positive change? Perhaps. Probably not. Either way, he might win Kimberly’s vote after Thursday night’s speech, and that’s what he wanted.

David Freddoso is a staff reporter for National Review Online and author of the newly released The Case Against Barack Obama.

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