x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A voice cries out in the wilderness

Sarah Palin, the vice presidential candidate, has stormed into the hearts of Republicans with her debut speech.

Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, hugs her son Trig onstage after her address to the National Convention.
Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, hugs her son Trig onstage after her address to the National Convention.

There was the inevitable joke that has become her trademark. What is the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom? Answer: lipstick. When the speech was over, Sarah Palin, mother of five and self-styled hockey mom, had won the hearts of the Republican party and cemented one of the most remarkable debuts in American presidential politics. The cheers for her speech echoed beyond the convention hall in St Paul, Minnesota. For Time Magazine "a star was born". The New York Times called her "combative and witty". According to the Chicago Sun-Times, she has "the heart of a street fighter". Only one figure in recent US political history has made a comparable impact, and his name is Barack Obama.

The Republican vice presidential candidate made just one reference by name to her opponent in her convention address. But major political speeches are often as much about what is omitted as expressed. Their impact lies between the lines, in the nuances and innuendos. Deconstructing them is an art form in itself. Take the family. Few things are more central in any US politician's message. Wednesday night was no different. Palin has five children and a loving husband, all bankable political points. But she also has a baby with Down's syndrome who will need constant care, while proposing herself as second-in-line from the Oval Office. And, as the world also learnt this week, she has an unmarried pregnant teenage daughter. How would she deal with this? With the following. "In April, my husband Todd and I welcomed our littlest one into the world, a perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trig. From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That's how it is with us. Our family has the same ups and downs as any other... the same challenges and the same joys. Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge."

In a few words she addressed her daughter's pregnancy without even mentioning it. That surprise and challenge she relates to the birth of her own son six months ago. Here, Palin attempts to defuse concerns about her own family while subtly demonstrating her opposition to abortion, an issue that will help rally evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics. Her appeal to "values voters" is particularly important since they turned out in record numbers to support George Bush, but have been more reticent to support John McCain. "He's a man who wore the uniform of his country for 22 years, and refused to break faith with those troops in Iraq who have now brought victory within sight. And as the mother of one of those troops, that is exactly the kind of man I want as commander in chief. I'm just one of many moms who'll say an extra prayer each night for our sons and daughters going into harm's way... And a week from tomorrow ? September 11th ? he'll deploy to Iraq". Early in her speech, Gov Palin connected the enlistment of her 19-year-old son in the US army, with the military service of John McCain, which included five years in a Vietnamese prison camp. She also tugged at the heartstrings of female voters, who would sympathise with mothers who have children in Iraq. By mentioning September 11, Palin subtly introduces a theme that worked for President George W Bush in the 2004 election: that the Republicans are tougher on terrorism than Democrats.

"We met in High School, and two decades and five children later he's still my guy. My Mom and Dad both worked at the elementary school in our small town. And among the many things I owe them is one simple lesson: that this is America, and every woman can walk through every door or opportunity." Palin mentions her marriage and large family to again varnish the appeal of the McCain-Palin ticket to staunch conservatives. But this time Palin also uses her upbringing to present her working-class roots that identify her with key middle-class demographics states that she repeatedly mentions throughout the speech: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. These are the so-called "Reagan Democrats", small "c" conservatives who can be persuaded to switch their votes if the right Right candidate, as with Ronald Reagan, comes along. She also courts supporters of Hillary Clinton in two key ways: working-class voters without a university education voted overwhelmingly for Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primaries. Then, emphasising that a "woman can walk through every door or opportunity" she appeals for the support of women who were inspired by Hillary Clinton's candidacy. "I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I know those voters, and knew their families, too." Palin describes herself as a member of the PTA (parent teacher association) and as a "hockey mom", a demographic similar to "soccer moms" - suburbanite, middle-class women, who voted disproportionately for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but from whom George W Bush was also able to attract. While Gov Palin presents herself as an everyday person, not a politician who needs focus groups, at the same time she appeals to a demographic construct created by pollsters.

"A writer observed: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity, I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman." While Harry Truman was a Democrat, he was the last president who did not go to college and is associated with small-town common sense and values that Palin hopes to embody. President Bush has frequently compared himself to Truman, who left the White House with very low approval ratings but was later vindicated by history's favourable treatment of his decisions as president. When it comes to foreign policy, the speech is notable for what it leaves out as much as what it brings in. There is no room for the United Nations or talk of negotiating the world's problems. The neocon bad guys are all here, Iran and terrorism. "Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries." And the old Cold War enemy is back. "Russia wanting to control a vital pipeline in the Caucasus, and to divide and intimidate our European allies." Palin appeals to those in the Republican party who argue for a more aggressive posture towards Russia, a more muscular support of democracy and countries on Russia's borders such as Georgia. Her position is consistent with McCain's, who has advocated kicking Russia out of the G8. "To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world energy supplies or that terrorists might strike again at the Abdaiq facility in Saudi Arabia, or that ... we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas. And take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska: we've got lots of both."

Here she attempts to neutralise concerns about her lack of foreign policy expertise by framing American security in the context of energy, an issue she knows more about. Alaska is the largest oil producing state and her husband and many of her constituents work in its oil fields. Energy independence, and the drilling projects in her state that she proposes would be a boon to the Alaskan economy and are a helpful shield against concern with her international awareness. When it comes to her rivals, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the tone is clearly derisory. "A small town mayor is sort of like a "community organiser," except that you have actual responsibilities... In small towns we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening." Palin deliberately avoids mentioning him directly, but mocks Barack Obama's work as a community organiser in Chicago after his graduation from Harvard Law School, an aspect of Obama's biography trumpeted by Democrats as indicative of his commitment to service. She also bolsters her own experience in government as a mayor of a town of 8,000 residents, by diminishing the value her opponents political experience. Then there is this line, perhaps the most well received by the party faithful: "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk to us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco". In one sentence she implies that Obama and Joe Biden are out of touch with everyday Americans (Scranton) and beholden to the cultural elite (San Francisco). Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and likes to emphasise his working-class credentials. San Francisco, thought of as a hotbed of extreme liberalism, anti-Americanism and homosexuality for Republicans, provides a steady stream of financial support for the Obama ticket. As McCain and Palin have little chance of winning in California, they knock its cultural mores to gain advantage in Pennsylvania and among working-class voters. Next she hits as Obama's supposed celebrity status and the perception that he is strong on rhetoric but short on real polices. "This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the world "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign. But... when the roar of the crowd fades away... when the stadium lights go out, and those styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot ? what exactly is our opponent's plan?" This was a speech aimed at the "flyover states" as the vastness of Middle America is often dismissively referred to by the liberal classes as they journey between New York and Los Angeles. It is a potent elector force when roused. And certain things are guaranteed to do this. "The democratic nominee for president supports plans to raise income taxes ... raise payroll taxes ... raise investment taxes. raise the death tax ... raise business taxes ... and increase the tax burden of the American people by hundreds of billions of dollars... Maybe you're trying to keep your job at a plant in Michigan or Ohio ... or create jobs with clean coal from Pennsylvania or West Virginia ... of keep a small farm in the family right here in Minnesota." Palin also doesn't differentiate between taxes on the wealthier Americans - investment taxes and a "death tax" on estates over $3 million dollars - and taxes that would affect middle-class Americans in key states in the 2008 election: Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Obama has proposed tax cuts for middle-class Americans but here Palin effectively links Obama's fiscal approach with the stereotype of tax and spend democrats. "I got rid of a few things in the governor's office that I didn't believe our citizens should have to pay for. The luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay. I also drive myself to work." Palin offers up her tenure at Governor of Alaska as red meat for small government, anti-tax Republicans. McCain has also been a long-time opponent of government waste, advocating that Congressmen not be allowed to attach special appropriations for their own constituents to legislation. "Here's a little news flash for reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion ? I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country." Another standing ovation here. Republicans have controlled the White House for the past eight years and the US Congress for six of the last eight years, but Palin continues to present herself and the Republican tradition as outside the mainstream of "Washington", a conservative watchword for elite and out-of-touch. While McCain had received such favourable treatment from the media that he once called them "his base", opposition to a "liberal media" has frequently been a galvanising force for conservatives. But that is the nature of American politics, and Sarah Palin, in the end, is a politician. * The National