The Palin-mania that is sweeping the GOP reminds me of the publicity surrounding “American Idol,” the popular American television program that catapults complete unknowns on to the national stage and gives them a chance at stardom: the anticipation, the gossip, the frenzy (and partisanship) of the fans. In the last days of the old Republic, this is what American politics has degenerated into: “reality” TV.
Prior to being plucked from obscurity by the neocons who run the McCain campaign, Sarah Palin was a complete unknown. Today, she is the object of a burgeoning cult that proclaims her to be the virtual incarnation of the Republican renewal. And never did a party require renewal like the GOP. What with G.W. Bush’s bottom-of-the-barrel poll numbers, after eight years of nightmarish mismanagement on the home front and frenzied recklessness abroad, dispirited conservative intellectuals and activists have been asking themselves “What went wrong?” Now, they don’t have to bother with such worrisome introspection, their identity crisis has been indefinitely delayed, all due to the appearance of a messiah on the horizon Sarah, the new Wonder Woman of the Right.
So where did she come from, and why has such an obscure figure formerly mayor of a small town in Alaska, and only lately elevated to the governorship been raised up so quickly, and mysteriously, like Venus sprung from the sea-foam?
McCain really wanted Joe Lieberman, the last surviving member of the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic party, whose neoconservative credentials, electoral appeal in certain key areas, and ability to provoke the Obama-crats made him the natural choice. Karl Rove, however, is too smart for that: he knew there would be a floor fight over it, and the McCainiac-neocon faction could very well lose torpedoing the campaign before it got out of the harbor.
How they prevailed on the headstrong McCain to back off is not known: perhaps the candidate suffered a sudden spasm of common sense, or even diplomacy. He did back off, however, and then they were left with nothing. Romney, Pawlenty, or some other boring white guy wasn’t good enough for the McCainiac high command: no, they wanted something more.
They knew they had to secure the base, while retaining the cross-party ideological punch Lieberman would have delivered. Their task was to capture the Clinton Democrats, who, prior to Hillary’s late conversion to the antiwar cause, were defined ideologically by their more cautious, and even hawkish, approach to the Iraq war issue. Obama staked his claim to the antiwar franchise early on, and Hillary’s refusal to second-guess or apologize for her “yes” vote in the Senate on the war question cost her the nomination. By the time she got on board the get-out-of-Iraq train, it had already left the station. The Democrats promised “change” in the foreign policy realm in the 2006 congressional election: they won, but didn’t deliver. Obama reminded Democratic voters of that promise: whether he’ll keep it, if elected, is another question altogether.
Yet there are still all those Clinton voters out there, who weren’t put off by her unapologetic stance on the war, or her more bellicose statements on Iran: these are the old Reagan Democrats, whom the neocons regard as their natural constituency. Hillary’s butch persona, especially during the latter days of her doomed campaign, when she became a veritable street-fightin’ gal, is another major theme the McCainiacs latched onto. By some alchemy of ideology and identity politics, the grand strategists of the McCain campaign came up with a formula and then looked around for someone who fit the bill.
McCain and his top advisors are ideologues who care about one thing and one thing only: war. The glory of it, the utility of it, the necessity of it. It’s the McCain panacea, like “free silver” was to William Jennings Bryan and socialism was to Eugene Debs. It’s his answer to everything: it solves all problems, and, more importantly, stifles all criticism. If you doubt his veracity, question his good intentions, or point out his inconsistencies, you’re attacking a war hero, doubting the divine wisdom suffering is supposed to impart.
Religion also played an important role in the choice of Palin: she’s a member of a dispensationalist sect, within the Pentecostalist tradition, a “born again” Christian who believes in the Rapture and the centrality of Israel in world affairs.
This latter belief is a theological verity with the dispensationalists, who make up the rank-and-file of the GOP’s electoral machine: after the Rapture, when the anointed are raised up to heaven and the rest of us are left on earth, the church will be represented by the Chosen People of God the Jews. According to the biblical prophecy, they will gather together in the land of Israel, their historic home, and this signals the coming of the End Times. Israel, for the dispensationalists, is the key issue: its interests must be defended at all costs, even above the national interests of the US. Israel is, in short, a non-negotiable item, and it’s easy to see how this fits very neatly into the neoconservative agenda.
According to news reports, Palin was diverted away from a fundraiser for a pro-life group headed up by Phyllis Schlafly so she could attend a grilling session conducted jointly by AIPAC and Lieberman, but this hardly seemed necessary. After all, the woman has a little Israeli flag in her office. I’m sure, however, her interrogators gave her a few useful pointers. Maybe they asked her about that pastor who came to her church and delivered a sermon explaining that Jews were doomed to suffer eternally from terrorist attacks in Israel until and unless they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Yes, the lady has her own Jeremiah Wright. As Rachel Maddow remarked the other day in between bouts of panicky hysteria over Palin’s instant stardom the parallels between Palin and Obama are pretty striking.
The McCainiacs chose Palin out of jealousy: they wanted an Obama of their own, and since they couldn’t have one, they settled on Palin the Bizarro Obama. Yes, she’s fresh, new, a self-anointed outsider in this Year of the Maverick but she’s the complete opposite of Obama in every other imaginable way. She’s aggressive, even a bit snarly, while he’s soft-spoken and calm, a reversal of gender roles well-suited to Bizarro World albeit one the writers for Superman Comics in the late-fifties and early sixties never imagined.
Oh, the irony! A campaign that put out a television ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton has now created a celebrity candidate of its own: Sarah Palin, the Caribou-hunting tough-talking feisty little lady from Alaska, with the showgirl legs and the spine of steel. The Brits are already likening her to Maggie Thatcher.
Sarah, who looks and acts an awful lot like Xena, the Warrior Princess, is the perfect messenger for the GOP’s credo of unmitigated militarism. Her speech to the Republican convention was, in large part, a continuation of the theme of the previous night: aggressive nationalism rationalized by religious fervor. The references to God were interspersed with worshipful references to all things military along with a full catalogue of all the current neocon targets: not only Iraq, but Iran, Russia, and “dangerous enemies” who are oil-rich (the Saudis?). The anti-Russian trope has been taken up with special alacrity by the McCainiacs, who are touting Palin’s position as commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard and her proximity to the Russkies to highlight her readiness to take the helm in the Situation Room. I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear tales of Commander Palin’s derring do when confronted with previously unreported Russian incursions across the Bering Strait.
The Palin choice is really all about the internal politics of the GOP, as much as it is about the hubris of McCain’s handlers. With the party led over the cliff by the neocons, whose Iraq adventure has cost them control of Congress and likely the White House, it was necessary to start anew. By reaching back into the party grassroots, and playing the gender card, the neocons could retain control of the GOP instead of being blamed for its demise and, perhaps, hold on to the White House.
It’s a big gamble, because Palin’s unreadiness to be President, in the event of McCain’s untimely demise, is all too apparent. Far from injecting a youthful note into the campaign, Palin’s physical presence next to the Old Man only underscores his advanced age and the prospect of President Palin staring us in the face. If that doesn’t scare voters, then nothing will.
Palin’s role is the traditional one assigned to the vice president, as candidate and office-holder: she is the attack dog, in what will be a campaign very much concerned with foreign policy issues. Expect her to be the point-woman on the alleged threat represented by Russia: after all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Alaskans suffered under the Czars’ yoke, and, to add insult to injury, were sold to the Americans for a truly paltry sum. If I were an Alaskan, I’d resent that, and there’s evidence Palin did, too: at least that’s one explanation for her flirtation with the Alaska Independence Party, which advocates secession from the US. But her secessionist days are over, I believe: in the future she’ll be attacking the secessionist Ossetians as Russian agents-of-influence and defending US intervention there, as in Iraq, as a mission divinely ordained.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Check out my ruminations on the GOP national convention in The American Conservative blog, here.