The good news for John McCain and the Republicans is that Sarah Palin definitely isn’t going to be another Dan Quayle.
The bad news for Barack Obama and the Democrats is that she may turn out to be another Spiro Agnew.
In her speech accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination Wednesday night, the feisty governor of Alaska showed that she can play with the big boys, whether the game is hockey or presidential politics. She’s a dynamic speaker who knows how to fire up her audience, define herself on her own terms as a family-oriented social conservative, burnish McCain’s leadership credentials, and get Team McCain’s message across to millions of average voters watching on TV.
But like Richard Nixon’s surprise choice of another obscure governor as his running mate in 1968, Palin also showed that she’s more than willing to play the role of McCain’s attack dog, just as Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew did for Nixon, by skewering Obama, the “Washington elite” and the news media as elite snobs who look down their noses at ordinary Americans and are out of touch with their major concerns. As the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, James Pelura III, told Bloomberg.com, “There was so much red meat in that speech that it raised my cholesterol 40 points.”
Indeed, Palin served up as much red meat as she would after carving up one of the caribou or moose that she hunts as a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear her echo Agnew’s famous characterization of the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But as Agnew found out, criticizing the media may play well with GOP voters, but it’s akin to poking a stick into a nest of hornets by inviting journalists to prove she’s wrong.
Her speech came on the heels of well-coordinated assaults on Obama by three former McCain rivals – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – and set the stage for McCain’s acceptance speech tonight. But many Republicans wonder if he will be able to match the sense of energy and excitement generated by Palin.
Palin has pretty much been the whole story so far at this truncated convention, which was thrown into disarray and whittled down from four days to three by Hurricane Gustav. Incredibly, the governor who few Americans knew only six days ago stole the spotlight from President Bush, who stayed home to make sure Gustav didn’t turn into another Katrina and had to settle for a less-than-prime time appearance via satellite from the White House while Bush 41 and Barbara came in his place.
But I think I heard a huge sigh of relief coming from the McCain camp when Bush, whose approval ratings rival those of Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, canceled plans to come to St. Paul, along with his equally unpopular vice president, Dick Cheney, who was dispatched to Afghanistan. If there’s anything McCain doesn’t want to happen, it’s to give Democrats the chance to hang the Bush-Cheney albatross around his neck.
I walked around the perimeter of the upper deck of Xcel Engerg Center as Palin was speaking, and watched delegates and guests react with rapturous applause after almost her every utterance, and especially as she introduced her husband and five children, including a 19-year-old soldier son who will be deployed to Iraq next week, a pregnant 17-year-old daughter and her future husband, and the Palin’s 5-month-old son, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome.
As I wrote when McCain shocked everybody by plucking Palin out of obscurity and thrusting her into the national limelight, it was either a political masterstroke or a miscalculation the size of Alaska’s Mount McKinley. Only time will tell which one it was, but Palin has now passed her first two big tests – her speech in Dayton, Ohio, last week when McCain introduced her as his running mate, and her speech accepting the GOP nomination.
Her next test will come in the days ahead when McCain’s handlers allow her to talk to the media, which is anxious to find out if an “average hockey mom” who joined the PTA out of concern for education and went on to become a mayor and popular reform-minded governor is ready for national office. Then, on Oct. 2, she will face her next big test when she debates her Democratic vice-presidential nominee counterpart, Sen. Joe Biden.
If GOP image-makers are smart, they’ll arrange for Palin to pose with the statue that stands at one of the entrances to Xcel, that of Herb Brooks, the St. Paul native who coached the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team to a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. That would be a much more appropriate model for Palin to emulate than Spiro Agnew.
And McCain better make sure he doesn’t go to the MSNBC tent in Rice Park for an interview and wander over for a look at the nearby statue of F. Scott Fitzgerald. A photo of a man who owns eight houses standing next to the statue of the writer who said “the rich are different from you and me” would not be a helpful image for a presidential candidate whose running mate rails against the “Washington elite.”