The Conventions Are Over – Now the Race Begins

The Republican Party was rocked by two storms as it began its national convention last week. With Hurricane Gustav about to hit the Gulf Coast on Monday, the "Grand Old Party" (or GOP, as it is called) was forced to drastically curtail the first days’ program. Haunted by memories of Hurricane Katrina and the insensitivity and incompetence of the Bush Administration’s initial response to that disaster, the Republicans did not want to be seen as conducting "business as usual."

Speeches were canceled (including President Bush’s opening day, in-person address) and a new program was hurriedly crafted, in an effort to display the GOP’s compassion and competence. First Lady Laura Bush and her erstwhile successor, Cindy McCain, appealed for donations to help victims of the storm, and the Governors of the affected Gulf States (all Republicans) appeared on the convention hall’s "big brother"- like screen, touting their preparedness.

Hurricane Gustav hit hard, but not as hard as Katrina. And so, by the second night, the conventioneers were able to begin their political business. The other storm was named Sarah, and proved to have a more lasting impact on the party.

Sarah Palin, a political novice who served six years as mayor of a town of 7,000 and Governor of one of the U.S.’ least populous states for only 20 months, was a surprise and, to many, a shocking pick to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate. While Republicans vigorously fought back against any and all criticism of Palin, suggesting that she had more experience than Barack Obama and was being unfairly targeted by a liberal media, their objections fell flat.

Intense scrutiny of candidates for national office and exposure of their failings are to be expected. After all, Obama, a Senator for three and a half years, has been on the national scene running for President for the last two years. During that time, he was vetted by the national media, challenged by tough opponents, called on to answer complex policy questions in 21 nationally televised debates, and had to endure a series of embarrassing stories that, for a time, appeared to threaten his candidacy.

Palin, on the other hand, is, in fact, an unknown. And while the McCain campaign hopes that their story and "spin" about their choice will go unchallenged, that is not the way either the press or the political process works. So it was that before Republican cheers for Palin had subsided, tough questions were being asked, her personal life scrutinized, and embarrassing stories were being exposed. As one liberal media outlet described the situation, it was a "drip, drip, drip" of revelations.

What was intriguing about all of this was not the performance of the media (they did what they do), but the partisan divide reflected in the response to these stories. Republican critics of Obama who just one week ago were suggesting that he wasn’t ready to become commander in chief , were heralding Palin’s experience as commander of the 3,000 member Alaskan National Guard, and doing so with straight faces.

My brother, John, an astute observer of politics, noted in amusement the absurd flip in attitudes as liberal feminists were offended by how Palin, a mother of five, could "abandon her children to seek a career in politics," while traditional conservatives expressed their affront at those who would deny a woman’s right to pursue a career and family. The fact is that, despite being a novice, the storm created by Sarah Palin has transformed the Republican convention, drawing attention away from McCain’s 2008 rivals, and making her the star of the show.

Of course, all of this points to, and says a lot about, John McCain. He can be a maverick – that is, unpredictable and impulsive – and once he makes a decision becomes rigid and defensive. In the selection of Sarah Palin, all of these traits were on display.

Something else occurred. Because Palin, a born-again Christian, has been embraced by the religious right (and now, in the midst of continuing criticism, even more tightly embraced), she has given the Republicans a cause they can fight for and energized what had been up until now a lackluster Republican campaign.

Despite following on stage the lineup of older white men who had been the 2008 Republican aspirants, she – not they – was greeted by sustained and enthusiastic applause. In her speech, she told her personal story, and introduced her family. Palin then used the spotlight to engage in an intensely partisan attack on Barack Obama, utilizing sarcasm combined with ridicule. She then continued developing what has been one of the more intriguing themes of this convention.

On one hand the Republicans want to portray McCain as a maverick centrist who will run against "Washington" and promote post-partisan politics; and, on the other hand, they are doing so in a way that intensifies the partisan divide embedding their candidate in the policies of the Bush Administration – all the while hoping that no one will notice that it is they who controlled Congress for twelve of the last fourteen years and the White House for the last eight. In effect, they are running against themselves.

In any case, the conventions are now over, the positioning of the parties is complete, and what promised to be an interesting campaign has only gotten more interesting (and, I fear, a bit nastier.)