ROBERT SHRUM: The Republicans’ Lipstick Populism

It was appropriate that the Republicans convened in the city named for Saint Paul. For on the road to the convention, John McCain had a conversion experience worthy of the saint, transforming his lobbyist-run, insider campaign into a full-throated appeal to cultural populism. The combination of purple anti-Washington rhetoric and blue-collar melodrama will henceforth be known as “Palinesque.” The question now is whether this hit show has enough gas to run until November.

The Republican convention’s immediate effect resounded across America and the sea, with the Times of London editorializing that the party had reached out “to the heartland, pitting the people against the powerful. It has worked before.”

As the person who was assailed for coining that phrase for Al Gore in 2000, I wish it had worked then. In a sense, it did: Gore came back from a double-digit deficit before his convention and achieved the dubious distinction of being elected without being inaugurated. But the populism Gore espoused—which Hillary Clinton borrowed in the final desperate push of her primary run—is very different from the McCain-Palin version. Palin assailed Obama for not mentioning the word “victory” in his acceptance speech. But she didn’t bother to mention “health care”—and McCain hasn’t troubled himself to offer a free-market approach to the issue. Will Americans take seriously a pledge to stand for “the people, not the powerful” that doesn’t even acknowledge this central concern? Can the pit bull pay lip service—or merely apply lipstick?

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Authentic economic populism is hardly available to a Republican ticket that has rubber-stamped the massive Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, which McCain initially opposed as “immoral.” In lieu of authenticity, all Palin could do was blithely lie with a smile, charging that Barack Obama would raise taxes on ordinary families, citing her own relatives who are opening a gas station. In reality, Obama proposes a tax cut for families with yearly incomes of up to $150,000. But in St. Paul, the truth was buried beneath the summer snow job that was Palin’s speech.

McCain, of course, does have a claim to the anti-Washington cause. But he has also been in Washington for decades. He needed a running mate like Palin to escape his hopeless casting call to a third Bush term and to restore his status as a maverick determined to change the old politics.

Lipstick, hockey moms, moose meat, earmarks, the “bridge to nowhere”—even McCain as war hero—together offer a brew of identity politics, cultural resentment and knee-jerk hostility to government, all designed to distract voters from the issues that would otherwise define this year’s electoral combat. McCain may be wealthy and house-rich, but unlike Obama, who wears his intellect on his sleeve, he and Palin are not what Lyndon Johnson used to call the “Harvards.” Even Palin’s daughter, 17 and in a family way, provides a cultural distraction, mightily pleasing the Republican base in the process.

Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees used to be celebrated as “Mister October” for his feats during the playoffs. Sarah Palin is “Miss September”—and cultural populism is the Republicans’ September song. Frum seems to think this cultural passport will suffice. But the coming Presidential debates, Palin’s debut press conference, if there ever is one, and her own debate encounter with Joe Biden may yet refocus the contest on issues, strengthening Obama’s position.

However much the Republican base hoots and whistles, Palin may not become their Miss November; she’s been a runner-up before. By November, voters may conclude that health care, jobs, and war and peace matter more than ice fishing, dog sleds and a pack of kids. As for McCain’s oft-told story of his admirable steadfastness as a POW, that was four decades ago. He is the prisoner of the Republican right wing now. And, unlike the North Vietnamese, they’ve broken him.

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