Back in February, several political lifetimes ago, I was on the radio with Laura Ingraham and she played Stevie Wonder’s campaign song for Barack Obama, whose lyric, in its entirety, runs:
(Repeat until coronation.)
And Laura and I had a good laugh about it, until it occurred to me that, in politics as in pop, the tune is more important than the words. A guy can run for president with all the right lyrics — on the war, the economy, the social issues — but what matters is whether people respond to the underlying music: not what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. At the time, I was reflecting on Mitt Romney: The song looked great on paper, but when he stuck it on the stand and started to warble it never quite soared.
That’s where Sarah Palin scored in the vice-presidential showdown. A lot of the grandees in the post-debate analysis reviewed the lyrics and missed the music. Whereas, I would wager, a big chunk of uncommitted voters out in TV land listened to Governor Palin, and liked the tune they were hearing. If you’re one of those coastal feminists who despise Alaska’s sweetheart as a chillbilly breeder whose knowledge of foreign policy is as full of holes as the last moose to make the mistake of strolling past her deck, Thursday night’s folksy performance isn’t going to change your view. But, if your contempt for her wasn’t already chiseled in granite, she came over as genuine, confident …and different. Change you can believe in, to coin a phrase.
I was a bit alarmed at first. I hadn’t seen her for awhile, not since the halfwits at the McCain campaign walled her up in the witness protection program and permitted visitations only by selected poobahs of the Metamucil networks. When she walked out on stage, her famous reach-for-the-skies up-do seemed a bit subdued and earthbound, like a low-budget remake of the famous scene in There’s Something About Mary. Then she started speaking. The lyrics were workmanlike, but the music was effective. I have a couple of favorite snapshots from the evening. One was when Governor Sarah Palin said that John McCain hadn’t required her to check her principles at the door, and she still believed in drilling in ANWR and she was hoping to bring him round on that. And then she grinned and gave a mischievous wink into the camera, and to the nation.
“Don’t sell the American people short,” said Obama honcho David Axelrod. “They need more than a wink and a smile.” Okay, so how about this? Joe Biden mocked the McCain campaign’s energy policy as “Drill, drill, drill”, and the governor came back to correct the line: “It’s not ‘Drill, drill, drill’,” she grinned. “It’s ‘Drill, baby, drill!’”
To be sure, if you listened to the lyrics — the policy, the facts, the platform — they weren’t always what you wanted to hear. Governor Palin’s riff on education quickly descended into a rote call for more spending, even though America already spends more per pupil than any advanced nation other than Switzerland and has less to show for it. And more than once you pined for a more devastating putdown: The Obama “plan” to “end” the war was, more precisely, a plan to lose the war, and in a healthy political culture would disqualify him from serious contention. If I’d been in charge of “coaching” Governor Palin, I’d take her out back, and set up the various Obama policy platforms as cardboard elk, lurking in the protective undergrowth of the mainstream media but still eminently hittable to a crack shot.
By contrast, Senator Biden was glib and fluent and in command of the facts — if by “in command of the facts” you mean “talks complete blithering balderdash and hogwash.” He flatly declared that Obama never said he would meet Ahmadinejad without preconditions. But, on Debate Night, the official Obama website was still boasting that he would meet Ahmadinejad “without preconditions”. He said America spends more in a month in Iraq than it’s spent in seven years in Afghanistan. Er, America has spent over $700 billion in Afghanistan since 2001. It’s spending about $10 billion a month in Iraq. But no matter. To demonstrate his command of the “facts”, Senator Biden sportingly offered up his own instant replays:
“My friend John McCain voted 422 times against tax cuts for the middle classes. Let me repeat that so the American people are clear on this. My friend John McCain voted 673 times against tax cuts for the middle classes.”
The problem was that it all sounded drearily senatorial. Mention any global crisis — civil war in Bosnia, genocide in Darfur, Russian aggression in Georgia, the lack of five-star restaurants in Wales — and Biden has been there, usually within the last two weeks, and always at public expense. What the American taxpayer gets for the Emir of Delaware’s frequent-flyer miles is harder to discern. Biden was doing his best to turn in a decent karaoke version of Lloyd Bentsen, but, unfortunately, Governor Palin declined to play Dan Quayle. That left Joe sounding like an ancient pol being generically vice-presidential. Sarah, at her best, sounded like the citizen-politician this country’s Founders intended. She hasn’t voted 397 times against this or that in the U.S. Senate, because she’s been running a state, and a town, and a commercial fishing operation. She’s a doer, not a talker, which is why so many of my fellow professional talkers disdain her.
When Regular Joe Six-Pack Bluecollar Biden tried to match her on the Main Street cred, it rang slightly wacky. “Look,” he said, “All you have to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington or go to Katie’s Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me, where I spend a lot of time.” Why? Is he moonlighting as a checkout clerk on the evening shift? Or is he stalking that nice lady in Lighting Fixtures? As for Katie’s Restaurant, ah, I’m sure it was grand but apparently it closed in 1990. In the Diner of the Mind, the refills are endless and Senator Joe is sitting shootin’ the breeze over a cuppa joe with a couple other regular joes on adjoining stools while Betty-Jo, the sassy waitress who’s tough as nails but with a heart of gold, says Ol’ Joe, the short-order cook who’s doing his Sloppy Joes just the way the Senator likes ‘em, really appreciates the way that, despite 78 years in Washington, Joe Biden is still just the same regular Joe Six-Pack he was when he and Norman Rockwell first came in for a sarsaparilla all those years ago. But, alas, while he was jetting off for one-to-one talks with the Deputy Tourism Minister of Waziristan, the old neighborhood changed.
In a conventional presidential environment, Bidenesque fake authenticity would be enough. Up against Sarah Palin’s authentic authenticity, I’m not so sure. All I know is that the McCain campaign should have her out on the road and doing every interview she can over this final month. Oh, and send her snowmobiling hubby to Maine, which splits its electoral college votes. He’ll put their Second Congressional District back in the red camp, and the way things are looking that could be the 270th vote that saves McCain’s bacon.
© Mark Steyn 2008