A familiar American aphorism is “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” In 2000, Karl Rove convinced Americans that a relatively unknown Texas governor could be a competent president. In 2008, John McCain’s Rove, Steve Schmidt, argues that an even more obscure Alaska governor will make a credible vice president and likely 45th president. Are Americans about to be fooled again?
In 2000, Rove ran a Republican presidential campaign based upon personality rather than issues. His candidate, Texas governor George Bush, was affable, able to deliver a simple speech with conviction, and a born-again Christian. Even though he was the son of a former president and had a long connection with national politics, Bush was packaged as an outsider: someone who could come to Washington, reach across party lines, and get America back on track.
In 2008, Schmidt also runs a Republican campaign based upon personality. Recently a McCain spokesman acknowledged: “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is affable, able to deliver a simple speech with conviction, and a born-again Christian. Even though she’s running with John McCain, who’s been in Washington for 26 years, McCain-Palin are being packaged as outsiders, “mavericks”—people who can come to Washington, reach across party lines, and get America back on track.
The Rove-Schmidt strategy is targeted primarily at hard-core, born-again Christians—somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the U.S. electorate and a key component of the Republican base. Although in the past three years he’s learned to walk and talk like a born-again, John McCain hasn’t convinced the Republican faithful that he is a true believer. The selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate is designed to win them over.
In 2000, George Bush came out as a born-again Christian. In 2008, Sarah Palin also advertises her identity as a born-again. Bush and Palin believe the Bible is literally true and God intervenes in worldly affairs. Bush said, “God told me to invade Iraq.” Palin says the Iraq war is a “task that is from God.” Both believe life begins at conception and abortion is a mortal sin; therefore, Bush and Palin insist that the federal government intervene in what most Americans regard as a private family medical decision. Both believe homosexuality is “a lifestyle choice”—Palin believes homosexuality can be “cured” through prayer. In 2000, Bush said there was insufficient evidence that global warming is man made; in 2008, Palin agrees. Both argue that creationism should be taught in the schools.
In 2000, many claims that George Bush made about his bona fides were later found to be false. He said he had been a successful CEO, but his businesses were failures. Bush said he had been a pro-environment governor, but Texas was notorious for unregulated pollution. In 2008, many claims that Sarah Palin has made about her credentials are also false. She says she was a successful mayor, but she actually left her town deeply in debt. She claims to be against “pork barrel” projects, but she lobbied for them as mayor and governor, most famously the “bridge to nowhere.”
Eight years after the great hoax of 2000, many political observers fear that Sarah Palin’s celebrity-buzz will propel the Republican ticket to victory and saddle the United States with four more years of failed Republican policies. Democrats want to know what the Obama campaign should do to counter this onslaught. First they need to understand what Sarah Palin represents.
University of California Linguistics Professor George Lakoff explains the nature of Palin’s appeal: She’s “the mom in the strict father family, upholding conservative values. Palin is tough ... She is disciplined: raising five kids with a major career. She lives her values... She has the image of the ideal conservative mom: pretty, perky, feminine, Bible-toting, and fitting into the ideal conservative family.”
Lakoff argues that to combat this evocative symbol, a GOP campaign based upon personality rather than upon substance, the Obama campaign needs to attack McCain and Palin on their values and symbolism: “Democrats ... need to call an extremist an extremist: to shine a light on the shared anti-democratic ideology of McCain and Palin, the same ideology shared by Bush and Cheney. They share values antithetical to our democracy.”
But this won’t be sufficient. If Americans are to avoid being fooled again, the Obama campaign should attack on three fronts between now and Nov. 4: First, they must keep talking about the economy and tie McCain-Palin to failed Bush policies that have produced an economic recession. Second, they should use the L word; repeatedly point out that McCain-Palin have lied about their records and key elements of their political personas—emphasize they are not “mavericks,” but rather “scoundrels.” Finally, Dems must seize the moral high ground: Emphasize key American values such as equity, empowerment, and personal responsibility and make it clear that McCain-Palin’s values are un-American.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com..