The point of the modern political convention is not to nominate a presidential ticket. Rather, it is to generate a rousing pep rally for the party’s true believers and favorable media coverage for the wider audience.
In that sense, the Republican conclave in the Twin Cities this week got off to a rocky start.
It was bad enough that Hurricane Gustav blew the convention off the top news spot and reminded voters of the Bush administration’s New Orleans misadventure of three years ago (“Heckuva job, Brownie.”). But the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continued to raise unsettling questions about John McCain’s judgment and temperament. And Palin’s family problems added a new twist to the “mommy wars” that have been part of the nation’s cultural discussion for decades.
On Tuesday these concerns were more than enough to knock Republicans off their game and put them where they rarely are – on the defensive. Speeches by former Sen. Fred Thompson and independent Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman, plus a piped-in address from President Bush, brought roars from the partisan throng at the Xcel Energy Center.
“We live in a dangerous world,” Bush said, referring to 9/11. “The man we need is John McCain.” But Bush’s eight-minute remote feed was a humiliation of sorts. He was pushed out of prime TV time and conveniently away from the convention hall so as not to contaminate the notion of McCain’s maverick image.
A question of judgment
Meanwhile, questions about McCain’s judgment in selecting Palin stayed front and center, among them:
• Did McCain and his staff fully vet the Alaska governor, given the startling revelation that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant?
• What about further concerns about Palin’s record in Alaska: her firing of the public safety commissioner who declined to dismiss Palin’s ex-brother-in-law after a messy divorce from Palin’s sister; her seeking of earmarks from lobbyists despite claiming to be a reformer against them; her support, during her gubernatorial campaign, of the notorious “bridge to nowhere,” and her supposed ties to members of the Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates secession from the union; her abstinence-only views on sex education, and her line-item veto of funds for a teen-pregnancy program?
• Does McCain’s selection of Palin bring into question his reputation as an impulsive risk-taker? Is risk-taking a good quality for a president and a commander in chief? Did McCain take Palin’s selection seriously enough, considering that if elected she’ll be a heartbeat away from the presidency? Or was he just pandering to conservatives and women voters?
• If McCain is such a maverick and so independent, why did he cave in to right-wing pressure to select Palin rather than go with Lieberman, his first choice?
• As for Palin, can she be a truly engaged candidate and vice president while dealing with family challenges; namely, a four-month-old baby with Down syndrome and a pregnant daughter who’s still in high school? Is she prepared for the White House, given her self-described status as a hockey mom, a former small-town mayor and a governor in the midst of her first term?
Mommy wars: ‘special campaign edition’
A scan of media reports turned up a number of worthy discussions on these topics.
“Ms. Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try,” Jodi Kantor and Rachel Swarns wrote in the New York Times.
“It’s the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition. But this time the battle lines are drawn inside out, with social conservatives, usually staunch advocates for stay-at-home motherhood, mostly defending her, while some others, including plenty of working mothers, worry that she is taking on too much.”
“I don’t care whether she’s the mother or the father, it’s a lot to handle,” a Texas woman told the Times.
But an Ohio woman cheered both Palin women for keeping their babies. “The whole family is pro-life, and they put that into practice even when it’s not easy,” she said.
On PBS’ “NewsHour,” Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., accused Palin’s critics of using a double standard. “No one ever asked John Kennedy whether he could be president and be a dad. Nobody asks Sen. Obama whether he could be president and be a dad. But because Gov. Palin is a woman, they’re asking whether she can be vice president and a mom.”
Andrea Hopkins offered a penetrating look in her Reuter’s dispatch. “News that Palin, a conservative Christian, is running for the country’s No. 2 office while parenting both an infant son with Down syndrome and a 17-year-old pregnant daughter has sparked both condemnation and commendation,” she wrote.
A Washington Post headline wondered if Palin isn’t just a “shooting star.” Veteran columnist Dan Balz began: “Four days into Hurricane Palin and the decision by John McCain to pick the Alaska governor as his vice presidential running mate looks every bit as big a gamble as it did when he introduced her to the public last Friday.”
Delegates took to Palin
Palin was instantly popular inside the convention hall, however, and all the scrutiny led some delegates to vent against a familiar target: “the liberal media.” Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey responded by saying that McCain invited the controversy: “This is the sort of on-the-fly vetting that McCain risked when he picked a relatively green and obscure governor from a thinly populated state. He gained the element of surprise – but had to hope that he wouldn’t be surprised.”
Indeed, the real issue is less Palin than McCain, veteran political writer Mark Barabak observed in the Los Angeles Times. “The question is whether McCain carefully vetted his selection and, if he did not, what that says about the judgment and decision-making the presumed Republican nominee would bring to the White House,” he wrote.
The New York Times editorial page made up its mind even before hearing Palin and McCain speak to delegates and the nation on these matters.
“Mr. McCain’s supporters are valiantly trying to argue that the selection was a bold stroke that shows their candidate is a risk-taking maverick who – we can believe – will change Washington,” the page said.
“To us, it says the opposite. Mr. McCain’s snap choice … reflects his impulsive streak: a wild play that he made after conservative activists warned him that he would face an all-out revolt in the party if he chose who he really wanted (Lieberman).
“Why Mr. McCain would want to pander to right-wing activists … is baffling. Frankly, they have no place to go. Mr. McCain would have a lot more success demonstrating his independence, and his courage, if he stood up to them the way he did in 2000.
“As far as we can tell, Mr. McCain and his aides did almost no due diligence before choosing Ms. Palin, raising serious questions about his management skills. … Choosing Ms. Palin raises serious questions about Mr. McCain’s qualifications.”
Big moment for Palin
Palin, meanwhile, was said to be holed up somewhere near the convention hall working on tonight’s coming-out speech. It will mark an important point in the campaign.
“For Palin and McCain’s presidential campaign, this is an extraordinary moment – as the little-known running mate introduces herself to a nation that has seen a mixed picture of who she is and remains unsure what to make of her,” Peter Wallstein and Doyle McManus wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
They punctuated their report with a quote from Dan Bartlett, a former counselor to President Bush. “There’s no middle ground on this for McCain,” he said. “She is either going to be a wild success or a spectacular failure.”
Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics for MinnPost, including urban design, transportation, national politics and world affairs. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.