Gordon Campbell on Sarah Palin, and Key’s likeability

Sarah Palin as beauty pageant contender 1984


Well, it didn’t take long for detail to surface on one of the problems Sarah Palin brings to her new role as vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party. As the Washington Post explains here Palin is still under investigation for trying to get a state trooper fired, in the wake of a messy ( there were threats of violence) divorce from Palin’s sister. Hmm, potential misuse of executive power in order to pursue a private vendetta?

That’s not quite the change from the Bush era that the Republicans would have been looking for.

This investigation may fizzle out before the election – and at worst, it may be possible for Palin to recast the situation as one of her being over-protective of her family. Given the alternatives on offer for John McCain though, Palin was – with hindsight, because no one saw her coming – the best of a poor bunch.

Already, Palin has achieved what the other names on McCain’s shortlist – Joseph Lieberman, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney – could not have done. She has united the formerly Christian conservative and economic conservative wings of the party. Already, the influential Christian Focus on the Family f0under James Dobson – who had previously signalled that evangelicals might sit out this election due to their suspicions about McCain – has expressed strong support for the new ticket strong support for the new ticket

According to Dobson, Palin was “an outstanding choice that should be extremely reassuring to the conservative base” of the GOP. Dobson added that the ticket “gives us confidence he will keep his pledges to voters regarding the kinds of justices he would nominate to the Supreme Court.” Yikes.

The pioneer conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie has also expressed his delight at Palin’s selection – “ She’s perfect !” – and hailed her elevation as the most mobilizing event in conservative politics since the selection of Ronald Reagan. Clearly, any Pentecostal election boycott ( or potential bleeding of the Republican vote in states such as Georgia to the Libertarian candidate Bob Barr ) has now been averted.

Palin’s remarkable life story is the main reason why. Only four years ago, she was simply the mayor of Wasilla ( population 8,400) and has been governor of Alaska for only about the same amount of time that Barack Obama spent campaigning for the Democratic nomination. A moose hunting, marathon running, abortion opposing mother of five, Palin married her high school sweetheart – a former athletics jock, hunting and fishing enthusiast and a trade unionist. ( Got that, swing state voters? ) Palin also carried to term a child that she knew from scans had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

It is the anti-abortion stance that has the Christian Right so excited about her. Palin was baptized as a teenager in the Assemblies of God Pentecostal church and worships at the independent Church of the Rock congregation but – according to the McCain campaign at least – does not regard herself as as a Pentecostal. She opposes gay marriage. While she has called for creationism to be discussed alongside evolution in Alaskan schools, her position is somewhat nuanced – in that she says she has not seen a need for creationism to be made a compulsory part of the state school curriculum.

Palin’s strong anti-choice stance should be being weighed by the Hillary Clinton bloc still out there. Not even Hillary’s tactical embrace of Obama at the Democratric Convention has satisfied the Hillary die-hards, who seem more than willing to lose this election to McCain/Palin in order to spite Obama, so that Hillary can return in triumph to claim her birthright in 2012 or 2016. For a good example of this lunacy, check out this detailed argument by Riverdaughter, on the Confluence site, and also, the near unanimous support for her position in the subsequent comments section.

To state the blindingly obvious : by 2012, Supreme Court justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter will have either died or retired. Therefore, the next President will get to nominate their replacements, and will define the shape of the Supreme Court for decades to come. Already, the John Roberts-led Supreme Court has issued rulings that have set fresh limits on abortion rights, voter rights, and free speech.

It could get far worse. A McCain/Palin administration – or worse, a Palin presidency – will have so stacked the Supreme Court with conservatives in the next four years that the Roe vs Wade basis of abortion rights in the United States will, in all likelihood, have been swept away by the time that Hillary returns in glory.

Thankfully, the Hillary-ites may have overstated their numbers, and their clout. There is poll evidence that Obama currently enjoys more support among the Democratic Party faithful than either Al Gore or John Kerry did at the similar points in their election campaigns in 2000, and in 2004. For the sake of a sane choice in November, let’s hope so.

Like McCain’s own reputation as a maverick, Palin’s reputation as an outsider can be overstated. There has been some interesting/skeptical reporting on her by the Fairbanks, Alaska Daily News-Miner here and here.

Also, if you want to see a clip of Palin from her youthful days as a sports newscaster, try this link from MSNBC:

Yes, Governor Palin has taken on the oil industry insofar as she has raised taxes on them, and she has clashed with Exxon Mobil over access rights to an oil and gas field at Port Thomson, Alaska. And she did also try – unsuccessfully – to get rid of the Republican Party’s Alaska boss Rudy Ruedrich in the wake of an early clash over what Palin saw as Ruedrich’s ethical failings. {There’s that use of executive power to settle her own personal vendettas theme again.) On the other hand, as the News-Miner also reports, Palin is no environmentalist, and is no friend of the polar bear :

{Palin } also challenged the federal government’s listing of the polar bear as a threatened species and has gone out of her way to help Shell with its offshore exploration program in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. And she’s been an outspoken advocate for developing [ie, oil drilling] Alaska’s energy resources.

Still, on the evidence to date, Palin will be an asset to McCain. Already, some key Democratic strategists are warning the Party – and Joseph Biden, the Democratic Party’s ‘ attack dog’ – not to make a martyr out of her, by disparaging her ‘hockey Mom ‘ image. In related fashion, much has been made of Palin’s lack of administrative or foreign policy experience. Some have claimed that McCain will no longer be able to attack Obama on those grounds, given his own choice of Palin as his potential successor. .

Fair enough, but only up to a point. Her inexperience will not hurt Palin, if the voters happen to like her. “Inexperience” is a coded word. From job interviews to elections, the claim that someone is ‘inexperienced’ is often another way of saying they’re “unlikeable.” That’s why I think the inexperience theme will play out differently between Obama and Palin, and not simply because he’s at the top of the Democratic ticket, while she’s got the fatherly figure of McCain to shield her from direct criticism on the ‘ inexperience’ score.

The telling contrast with Palin is that Obama is being successfully portrayed by the Republicans as remote, intellectual and unlikeable. As Democratic strategist James Vega says, the attack on Obama’s ‘inexperience’ with both foreign policy and domestic realities is coded in a particular way – to signal that he is a Hollywood style-celebrity who inhabits an alien world of health spas, fancy vegetables and bottled water :

“ The implication was that, like other Hollywood stars, Obama must be “self-infatuated and effete” or “vain and out of touch” or “effete, elite and equivocal” – in short, a weak and vain man without real character; a male fashion model living a movie stars’ life and not the real life of ordinary Americans.

Contrast this with how Palin’s alleged ‘inexperience’ could easily play out : as a likeable, down home lack of vanity and privilege. In that scenario voters could well cut her a degree of slack they will not extend to Obama. Just as they cut slack for George W. Bush, but were merciless with John Kerry. That’s why Biden will have to muzzle his attack dog instincts. Because direct attacks on Palin risk being seen as an attack on the down home virtues that she is (currently) felt to embody, while accentuating the perception of Obama/Biden as a pair of elitists, scornful of how middle America clings to its God and its guns. Expect to see a lot of Palin and her guns over the next few months, and at church.

Palin will humanise McCain up to the point where she shows herself unfit for higher office. If she doesn’t have a Dan Quayle moment, the Democrats have a lot of reasons to feel very worried about her.

John Key’s Likeability Factor

Likeability can take you a long way in New Zealand as well. Charm and likeability have done wonders for John Key, especially in contrast to the colder, more intellectual style of his opponent.

In a reversal of the usual gender roles, Key has had the more traditionally ‘feminine’ image. He is not expected to have a strong command of policy detail, is known to waver off message when under pressure, can be a bit vain…while Helen Clark’s control in those areas is seen to be alienating, and oppressive.

To date, voters have been happy to embrace the softer side of Key. This same ‘likeability’ factor has also blunted Labour’s attempts to portray National as having a baleful secret agenda, or that Key is shifty and unreliable. People have been willing to see his occasional lapses, or vagueness as part of a more relaxed, nice guy approach to politics.

That’s why Key’s gamble over Winston Peters is so interesting – because it could help to unravel that image. If Peters can ultimately provide sufficient satisfactory evidence of where the money has gone, Key will have been guilty of a rush to judgement. Alone, that might not matter. But since Key has also ruled out having Roger Douglas in his Cabinet – regardless of the number three slot that Douglas holds on the Act party list – then it goes beyond a touch of vanity, into something that looks more like arrogance.

An election can throw up democratic outcomes that Key may not prefer – but he has to live with them and work around them. Voters will reach their own conclusions about Peters. They could well boost his party back over the five per cent threshold in sympathy. Arguably, such an endorsement could make New Zealand First a valid contender for government. Similarly, people will have voted for Act partly because Douglas sits at number three on the list, on the expectation that Douglas’ experience would be utilized by National around the Cabinet table. They could well ask – is Bill English so much more capable than Douglas as an economic manager that he feels no need of advice ?

I’m all for people declaring beforehand who they will work with in government – but on solid policy differences, not on the winds of political opportunism. Key would claim that his current position on Peters is one that is based on principle – but until the SFO or privileges committee reach a conclusion – there seems to be little principle involved in pre-judging an issue, for fleeting political advantage.

Similarly, what is there about Douglas that Key does not like, beyond his political radioactivity with some voters? Which of the policy positions that Douglas espouses will Key promise beforehand to reject just as firmly if and when he is in government– or is Key intent on running this election campaign on a series of popularity gambits, rather than on policy positions?