Two masterstrokes were accomplished in the last two days of this year’s Republican National Convention. In her first appearance on the national stage — which can only be called a tectonic event — Sarah Palin secured the conservative base for maverick John McCain, while also reaching out to Democratic women. Then on Thursday night, John McCain struck again, making a play for the rest of the Democratic party.
When John McCain was sewing up the nomination in the early spring, I spent a lot of time in many comment sections defending him in as many ways as I knew how. He wasn’t my first choice (Fred) or my second (Rudy), but he was the GOP nominee, fairly elected, and looking at the table I thought he was the only man who had a chance to win in November — because frankly, we Republicans don’t deserve to be this lucky.
Many conservatives were arguing that it would be better to sit this one out, and let the country go to hell, so that we could send the Republican party a message and re-emerge from the ashes in 2012 with “the next Reagan.” I pointed out that there were two problems with this theory:
First, you may not like the fact that Grandma smokes in bed, and you may indeed want to get her attention. But if that message consists of letting her set the bed, the house and the grandchildren on fire, perhaps there was a better way to “send a message.” Second, it pained me to point out that there was no “next Reagan.” Ronald Reagan was on the political scene for almost two decades before he became President. Who was waiting in the wings to magically fill this role? No one.
Newt Gingrich’s fire-breathing army of young reform Republicans who stormed congress in 1994 grew, in about a decade, into the party of Duke Cunningham, Trent Lott, and the Bridge to Nowhere. I watched this unfold — especially after 2004 — and time and time again, the core conservative values of discipline and responsibility were betrayed, mocked, and ignored. Restraint is not an easy sell in a society this affluent — not compared with the view of government as a bottomless bag of candy. That’s why we’re supposed to be the party of adults.
Power corrupts, and I believe there is no power more intoxicating and corrosive than the ability to spend other people’s money at will. If Newt’s Army could go so far astray, you can bet the country was disillusioned, disappointed, and furious — not just ready for change, but eager for it, even change as ethereal and diffuse as what Senator Obama has been peddling. We lost the Senate and the House in 2006 because of this. We were going to lose the presidency in 2008 for it. And we deserved to lose it.
And so — prior to this week — all we had was a grim determination to vote against a dangerous, socialized vision of the future. We were portrayed — largely accurately — as old, tired, out-of-touch, out of ideas, out of candidates . . . too white, too male, too square. It doesn’t matter how true or false that caricature was. That was the narrative, and there was enough of it that fit.
And then the earthquake came.
Sarah Palin is the anti-Obama: not a victim, not a poser, not riding a wave but rather swimming upstream — and most of all, not having run for president her entire life. She is the first politician I have ever seen — and I include Ronnie in this, God bless him — who strikes everyone who sees her as an actual, real, ordinary person. Immediately came T-shirts saying I AM SARAH PALIN. HER STORY IS MY STORY. There is a lot of Obama swag out there, too, but none of it says HIS STORY IS MY STORY. Hold that thought till November 5.
She is so absolutely, remarkably, spectacularly ordinary. I think the magic of Sarah Palin speaks to a belief that so many of us share: the sense that we personally know five people in our immediate circle who would make a better president than the menagerie of candidates the major parties routinely offer. Sarah Palin has erupted from this collective American Dream — the idea that, given nothing but classic American values like hard work, integrity, and tough-minded optimism you can actually do what happens in the movies: become Leader of the Free World, the President of the United States of America. (Or, well, you know, vice president.)
Sarah Palin has done more than unify and electrify the base. She’s done something I would not have thought possible, were it not happening in front of my nose: Sarah Palin has stolen Barack Obama’s glamour. She’s stolen his excitement, robbed his electricity, burgled his charisma, purloined his star power, and taken his Hope and Change mantra, woven it into a cold-weather fashion accessory, and wrapped it around her neck.
A candidate who is young, funny, well-spoken, intelligent, charming, drop-dead gorgeous — and one of ours? Is this actually happening?
I have personally seen hundreds of crusty, old-school paleocons who despised McCain now saying “He finally listened to us.” By picking Palin — instead of Lieberman, who we all know he wanted — he has told conservatives that he gets it. They’re not holding their noses and voting any more. They want yard signs and bumper stickers — they can’t wait to vote GOP. And the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, folks: they are writing checks.
I’ve seen post after post on Hillary forums about how much they love Sarah, how they are energized and lifted out of depression by her (and the sight of an actual Roll Call made some of them weep). They gush about how she reminds them of their hero, how tough and savvy and unafraid she is. And I have seen these women, hard-core, feminist Democrats for 30 years and more, sit in slack-jawed amazement at Palin and at how fiercely Republicans — Republicans! — are defending her, backing her, and cheering her to the rafters. These Clinton supporters say they don’t know what to think any more: The Republicans are behaving like Democrats and the Democrats are behaving like Republicans!
If you think that’s an insult, you’ve got it exactly backwards. That is not only a huge compliment from these abandoned, centrist Democrats who bemoan the loss of their party to the radicals, it is an early rumbling of a tectonic shift in American politics which we are only dimly beginning to grasp. Who are the real feminists? A significant portion of our former hard-core opposition is now rethinking in a fundamental way who it is that actually does what their former allies only talk about.
That, my long-suffering and now giddy and sleepless friends — that is the smell of victory. That is conservatism with a future. And we started on that path not by nominating a Democrat-lite, but the polar opposite. The nomination of a woman with perfect conservative credentials is causing some significant number of Democrats to re-examine everything they believe. I say: Welcome Home. Welcome to the party of individual achievement, regardless of race or gender.
And, finally . . . what of John McCain? I’ve read many comments about his speech being a disappointment. I don’t know how it looked or played from the floor. But I know how it played from my Los Angeles living room. I believe — and we’ll know soon enough if I’m right — that John McCain did something Thursday night more powerful and astonishing than Sarah Palin did the previous evening. Sarah stole Obama’s glamour. McCain stole his message. (Granted, that may not be a lot, apart from the glamour, but it was all Obama had left.)
Sarah played to the base, who loved her. McCain played to the middle that we will need to win. Put his rhetorical ticks, the green background, the protestor interruptions — put all that away. No one really cares about that.
We in the opinion trade lose track of how little the American public actually knows about candidates, because they — very sensibly, in my view — have the much more important task of actually getting on with life until right . . . about . . . now. For many Americans, this was their introduction to John McCain.
From the video, we learned that John McCain is a . . . momma’s boy? That was inspired. It was unexpected, charming, and real. And McCain’s great single weakness, his age, gets considerably less worrisome seeing his 96-year-old mother — who is more than spry and lucid, but a veritable firecracker. That’s a subtle move — an elegant and brilliant move.
I knew McCain’s father and grandfather were admirals. I did not know his grandfather was on the USS Missouri, came home, and died the next day after giving everything he had for his country. That’s powerful. And the image of his father standing on the North Vietnamese border, looking out toward his missing son as he orders the bombing of the city where he is being held? McCain reminded us that there are things far more important than politics.
As for the speech: yes, it was stilted. Awkward in places, true. Ugly background, cheesy flagpole, lack of polish — got it. But as the northerners said of Abraham Lincoln in the first days of the war, when he was mockingly compared to the effortless grace of Jefferson Davis: “We didn’t get him for ballroom purposes.” Damn right we didn’t.
John McCain got me to believe tonight what I never really believed about him before: he is serious about changing Washington. He is serious about getting the GOP back to basics. John McCain wants to repair the brand. Claiming to want to do something is talk. What I think will cause many to believe him is something more than talk: McCain decided to man up. It’s our fault. We lost the confidence of the American people. We said we’d be true to our principles, and we weren’t. The Democrats didn’t make us do it. We did it to ourselves.
That has the ring of truth to it. It is a grownup accepting responsibility for a mistake not of his making and asking for the chance to rectify it. I don’t know how much of the country will believe him. But I did.
If McCain can get close — just close — to convincing the American people that real reform is possible with Republicans and not just the Democrats, then they are left with a decision of who they feel safest with, and who actually walks the walk. The GOP owns that ground. That’s victory in November, and it’s the only way to victory in November. We are an optimistic, hopeful country. We will not prevail by convincing people why they should not vote for the other guy. People need to vote for something . I think John McCain gave us that on Thursday night.
And a final thing: I had heard before that John McCain had been beaten in prison, and I admired him for it. But when he said he had been broken . . . I gasped. When this sometimes cocky, arrogant old man told me he had once been a cocky, arrogant young man until he was “blessed by hardship,” until he had been broken and remade — and in that remaking discovered a love of country so fierce and pure that even as a patriot myself I will never approach it — well, in that moment John McCain won my heart, to add to the respect and admiration he had already had.
When John McCain told me what I and untold millions of Americans have always believed, what others tell me to be ashamed of and mock me for — that I live in the greatest country in the world, a force of goodness and justice in dark places, a land of heroism and sacrifice and opportunity and joy — to me that went right to the mystic chords of memory that ultimately binds this country together. Some people don’t know what it is, but there is such a thing as patriotism — pure, unrefined, unapologetic, unconditional, non-nuanced, non-cosmopolitan, white-hot-burning patriotism. John McCain loves this country. I love it too. Not what it might be made into someday — not its promise, always and only its promise — but what it was and what it is, a nation and an idea worth fighting and dying for.
I was lukewarm on McCain Thursday night, but after that close I will follow that man to the ends of the earth with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.
And I don’t know whether or not we will win in November, but for the first time I feel like we deserve to win more than they deserve to lose. And I find myself at peace for the first time in . . . well, it seems like forever. Because now I know that we will win or lose based on what we love and what we believe in, and that we have managed to find two politicians who have lived those values through good times and bad.
– Bill Whittle lives and works in Los Angeles.