A Pit Bull With Lipstick
Why the smiling, sudden, relentless Sarah Palin should scare Democrats.
Drill, baby, drill. Sarah Palin was relentless in her speech Wednesday night. She drilled Barack Obama, elites, San Francisco, the press, and civil libertarians. She even went after Michelle Obama. And she did it all with a smile and a little mischief. Republicans have been flummoxed because Obama seems untouchable, but Palin may have found an effective way to criticize him—while becoming an elusive target in her own right. Want to call her shrill? Go ahead. There are a lot of women like her who vote and who might be listening.
For many months, Republicans have been warning us against candidates with thin résumés introducing themselves on the national stage. Ignore Barack Obama's lofty language, they've said. He's just offering words. And definitely don't pay attention to the screaming crowds. They're only proof that he's an empty-suit celebrity.
Never mind. On Wednesday night, the Republican Party tried to catapult Sarah Palin past her rocky rollout and into legitimacy in a single speech wrapped in thunderous applause.
Republicans are reacting to Palin the way Democrats do to Obama. The only difference is that, in the GOP, enthusiasm is measured in Reagan units. Party veterans called her a "female Reagan" and a "natural like Reagan." Their sustained applause at her introduction matched, and may have surpassed, that which greeted Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention.
What got Republicans out of their seats is not just a desire to annoy the media they think are stacked against her. Palin gave them some of that old-time religion. I don't mean code words about abortion—she didn't touch the subject. She offered only glancing references to God. What got the women shaking their "Hockey Mom" signs and the Texas delegation waving their straw hats was the attack on their common enemies in elite circles and the press.
"I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment," she said. "And I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion—I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."
It was clear Palin was having fun, and it's hard to have fun if you're scared or a lightweight. She had command, the same quality people attributed to Obama in 2004. Yes, she had speechwriters and she knows how to read a teleprompter. But there are plenty of politicians who've had great speeches and years of practice and still need lots of help. (One of them, actually, is Palin's running mate.)
The biggest target of Palin's succession of happy little kicks in the groin, of course, was Barack Obama. She painted him as a vapid, self-obsessed fog machine of words. He was on a "journey of personal discovery," whereas McCain was running for office to serve. She made fun of his presidential seal, his two memoirs, and, most pointedly, his remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser. "In small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening."
The message was clear: Who is this guy? When she said that people in small towns are "always proud of America," it was clear she was referring to Michelle Obama's claim that for the first time she was proud of her country. (Laura Bush let Michelle Obama off the hook, but Palin won't. That's the difference between first ladies and Iron Ladies, I suppose.)
John McCain will win by making Barack Obama look un-American. That's sensitive stuff. Hillary Clinton destroyed herself trying to use it. But Palin may know how to use it. Palin's attacks are potentially dangerous because they are aimed at the crucial voting bloc of women and middle-class voters who can see their lives in her life. Obama talked about coming from a middle-class life. Palin still lives one. She could improvise a joke about being a hockey mom—what's the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom? Lipstick—because she is one.
The secondary purpose of Palin's speech may be the most important in the long run. She wasn't just launching a new brand (her own). She was relaunching a whole new product: the McCain-Palin ticket. Experience is no longer the central argument. Reform is. McCain and Palin are presenting themselves as leaders who can deliver because they speak and act regardless of the political risk. "Here's how I look at the choice Americans face in this election," said Palin. "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."
It was a great act—but it was an act, a one-shot show. Palin will have to keep it up for the next nine weeks, when there won't be time to practice or the opportunity to sand down that line to keep it from sounding small and mean. This is a test Obama has already passed. And her sarcasm will wear thin quickly. Reagan could do it because he was a sunny optimist offering a vision of the future. Palin didn't do much of that, other than by offering platitudes (hey, she had a lot of ground to cover).
It's McCain's job to talk about the future Thursday night, say Republicans. He can feel happy that, for the moment, his judgment about his pick seems to have been vindicated. Now he better hope he can do half the job his new sidekick did.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Sarah Palin on Slate's homepage by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.