04 sept 08 Media and US elections analysis

By Daniel Politi, Slate Magazine


The Republican Party officially nominated John McCain to be the GOP’s presidential candidate last night. But that was hardly the highlight at the Republican Convention, where delegates were “riveted less on the foregone conclusion of the roll call vote than on the national, prime-time debut of his running mate,” notes USA Today. Indeed, the papers give top billing to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was catapulted to the national political stage last week and who has been dealing with a rocky coming-out party. The controversies that have surrounded her selection meant that Palin’s speech last night “had much higher stakes than the typical vice-presidential convention speech,” the Wall Street Journal points out. At least inside St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, Palin was (surprise!) a hit. “Palin’s appearance electrified a convention that has been consumed by questions of whether she was up to the job,” says the New York Times.

As expected, Palin spent a significant portion of her speech expanding on her biography, but she also wasn’t shy about taking on the traditional role of a vice-presidential candidate and attacking Barack Obama. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post highlight her attacks on the Democratic presidential nominee and come up with virtually identical headlines: “Palin Comes Out Fighting” (WP) and “Palin Comes Out Swinging” (LAT).

The WSJ points out that throughout her address, Palin tried to confront all the questions and controversies that have been raised since McCain picked her and attempted to “turn them into assets with mainstream voters.” She defended herself against attacks that she’s too inexperienced to take up the office of vice president by saying that she’s far more qualified than Obama. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” Palin said in reference to Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago.

And the attack continued: “I might add that 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.” (Slate‘s Christopher Beam writes that with her speech, “Palin crystallized the McCain campaign’s main strategy against Barack Obama: withering sarcasm.”)

While there was plenty more where that came from, Palin didn’t devote all her attacks to Obama; she also cast herself as a victim of the “Washington elite” and the media, always a sure-fire applause line among Republicans. “Here’s a little news flash for all those 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.” The Post‘s Dan Balz says Palin let her critics know that “she is ready to fight” and launched an “us-vs.-them attack, designed to attach Obama and the Democrats to the cultural elite and to tie herself and McCain to the values of the hardworking, God-fearing, patriotic middle of America.”

Palin also heaped effusive praise on McCain and talked a bit about policy issues, but the clear focus was on her biography (she introduced her family members by name) and on attacking the Democratic nominee. USAT does the math and notes that Palin said “McCain” and “our nominee” 21 times while she used the words “Obama” and “our opponent” 56 times.

Palin was hardly the only speaker of the night to launch withering attacks against Obama and the Democratic Party. She was preceded by three of McCain’s opponents during the primaries, who, as the LAT puts it, blamed “Democrats for everything wrong with Washington.” The NYT points out that the night was “notable for not a single mention from the stage of the unpopular president.” Right before Palin took the stage, Rudy Giuliani showed the country why no one does sarcasm like a New Yorker: He used it extensively to question Obama’s experience and judgment while describing him as an opportunistic flip-flopper.

As successful as Republicans may think that Palin was in her speech, it’s important to remember that “Wednesday was the easy part,” notes the LAT. Palin was already known as an effective speaker, and she talked before a friendly audience that was ready to embrace her. Strategists say she will face a much more difficult test when she submits to unscripted interviews and, more specifically, in the debate with Sen. Joe Biden on Oct. 8. (“It was a great act—but it was an act, a one-shot show,” writes Slate‘s John Dickerson. “Palin will have to keep it up for the next nine weeks.”)

Even before the main speakers took to the stage at the convention yesterday, the McCain campaign was aggressively fighting back against what it characterized as the media’s unfair portrayal of Palin and the seemingly incessant focus on Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. Today, there’s a marked shift in how the papers cover the vice-presidential nominee, with the LAT, NYT, and WSJ all publishing largely positive front-page looks at Palin’s record in Alaska. The NYT says that being governor of Alaska “is just flat different” and notes that the governor there has more power than almost anywhere else in the country. After she came from behind and won the governor’s race in 2006, she used this power to push her agenda and emerged as a “steely populist” who worked with Democrats, and sometimes against members of her own party, to pass legislation.

The WSJ also highlights her ability to reach out across the aisle and notes that a look at her record “shows a politician more flexible in her ideology as she has juggled the needs of governing.” Although much has been made about her opposition to abortion, she actually angered pro-life advocates by refusing to push for new abortion limits when she thought it would distract lawmakers from more pressing issues. For its part, the LAT details how Palin took on the state’s powerful energy industry and steadfastly pushed for an oil production tax increase. So, even though she’s a strong proponent of more domestic drilling, her “hard line on the oil companies has stirred concern among energy executives across the country.”

Still, even if they do seem to be losing steam at the moment, the controversies aren’t going away. The WP goes inside with word that Palin wrote e-mails to Alaska’s top law-enforcement official that criticized state troopers for their unwillingness to fire her former brother-in-law. The former public safety commissioner, who was fired in July, showed the WP the e-mails and says he has turned them over to ethics investigators to support his claims that he was fired as a result of his refusal to dismiss the trooper. He says that he felt pressured by Palin and her family to fire the trooper, whom they say threatened to kill Palin’s father. In the e-mails, Palin says that an internal affairs investigation into the trooper’s conduct “was a joke.”

While many are busy praising Palin’s speech, David McGrath writes an ode in the WP op-ed page to the great, unsung American hero: the speechwriter. McGrath wonders why we react so viscerally to cases of plagiarism, while “those using the words of unacknowledged speechwriters get a free pass.” How can we be sure that Palin really meant what she said if she didn’t write the words? McGrath says all public officials should at least write their major speeches. “And when they must use speechwriters, they should credit the writer at the conclusion so the public knows the true source of the work.”

In the LAT, Gloria Steinem writes that selecting Palin, who “shares nothing but a chromosome with Clinton,” to attract women voters simply won’t work. “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman,” she writes. “It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere.” Even the most fanatical Clinton supporters won’t be moved to vote for a candidate who opposes so many issues that most women support. “To vote in protest for McCain/Palin would be like saying, ‘Somebody stole my shoes, so I’ll amputate my legs.’ “

 

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