Friday, September 05, 2008

Conventional Wisdom


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Well, they’re over. The 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions are history, and John McCain and Barack Obama can at last proclaim themselves as the actual, not merely “presumed,” nominees of America’s two major parties — the only major parties we’ve had since 1856 or are likely to have in the foreseeable future, barring the emergence of a party-building candidate with H. Ross Perot’s bankroll and considerably more perseverance. It’s a measure of how quaint the traditions of American politics have become that Labor Day, which was traditionally considered the start of a presidential campaign season, was this year the starting date of the Republican convention — and that McCain and Obama had been running against each other as the informal choices of their parties for at least three months before that.

The most amazing story to come out of either party’s convention and final nomination process is the selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential choice. Vice-presidential selections used to mean a good deal more than they do now. From the 1830’s — when public conventions replaced the private caucuses that had previously picked the parties’ presidential candidates — to the 1960’s, running mates were usually chosen to “balance” the ticket ideologically and/or to secure support in a major state or region where the presidential candidate was thought to be weak. Now one suspects most presidential nominees regard the choice of a running mate less as “Who’s going to help me the most?” and more “Who’s going to hurt me the least?”

This year, Obama and McCain both picked their vice-presidents in the opposite way from what one would have predicted based on how they ran their campaigns for the nominations in the first place. Obama went the Dick Cheney route and picked Joe Biden, who’s been a U.S. Senator since Obama was 12, who voted for the war in Iraq and who would win approval from Democratic moderates and media pundits as adding “experience” and “gravitas” to the ticket. McCain went the Dan Quayle route, picking a young, little-known firebrand with appeal to the radical-Right base of his party — and he went one better , seizing on what he felt would be an opportunity to pick up the votes of disaffected Democratic women still upset over Hillary Clinton’s loss to Obama by picking a woman of his own.

In terms of bringing the Republican party together and reconciling the radical-Right’s firebrands to McCain’s nomination, his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as a running mate was a smashing success. Throughout the week of the Republican convention, delegate after delegate cited Palin’s hard-line stance against allowing abortion under virtually any circumstance as something that was making them proud to be Republicans again and getting them excited about McCain’s candidacy instead of just dutifully supporting him as the lesser of two evils. James Dobson of Focus on the Family — probably the most powerful leader of today’s radical Christian Right — who earlier in the year had darkly hinted of supporting an independent candidate if McCain was the Republican nominee, enthusiastically endorsed McCain and said Palin had made the difference.

Palin’s firebrand speech to the convention on September 3 indicated that she’s going to be an attack dog for McCain the way Richard Nixon was for Dwight Eisenhower, Spiro Agnew was for Nixon, Bob Dole was for Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle was for George H. W. Bush. The chants of “Drill, baby, drill!” that punctuated her speech kept reminding me of what I’d written a month before on the drill-o-mania that seems to be the Republicans’ entire energy platform: “Not only do the drill-o-maniacs ignore the environmental carnage that their strategy would ensure — not only the direct damage from oil spills but the increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — they positively seem to revel in it.” Palin is getting partially deserved credit for raising Alaska’s tax “take” from the oil and gas industry — which seems to supply virtually their entire economy — though in fact she was content to sponsor a mild increase and the Democrats in the Alaska legislature had to push her to agree to a bigger one. But her overall approach to energy — and that of her party — is “Damn the environment, full speed ahead!”

As an inducement to disaffected Democratic women supposedly eager to vote for a ticket with a woman on it, however, Palin is proving a big flop. As Gloria Steinem put it in the Los Angeles Times, “Palin shares nothing but a chromosome” with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hillary Clinton herself asked her supporters on the floor of the Democratic convention whether it was just about her or whether it was about the issues. She didn’t come right out and say that any Democratic woman stupid enough to vote for McCain just out of a hissy-fit that Obama had beaten a woman would likely be giving McCain the opportunity to appoint the two hard-Right Supreme Court justices needed to overturn Roe v. Wade, but virtually everyone in that room knew that’s what she meant.

And make no mistake about it: it was Palin’s hard-line opposition to virtually all abortions — as dramatized in her private life by her decision to carry her fifth pregnancy to term even after her doctors warned her that the baby would have Down syndrome — that got her the nod to run with McCain. If “conservative woman” had been the only criterion, there would have been far better choices available — like Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison or North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, both far more qualified than Palin to become president if the 72-year-old war-injured cancer survivor croaks in office. But apparently neither Hutchison, Dole nor some of the other Republican women mentioned (like Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) were anti-choice enough for the rabid Republican Right.

From my point of view, Palin’s selection was the best piece of political news I’d heard in months. In what was shaping up to be a Democratic year, on the eve of the conventions McCain had pulled to within two points of Obama — a statistical tie — in the polls. I’d spent months worrying that the Democrats might have already pissed away the presidency this year by making their front-runners an African-American and a woman in a country still too racist and too sexist to elect either. I’d listened with awe at the cool efficiency of the Republican media party as it went after Obama with its usual precision and aplomb, dredging up figures like Rev. Jeremiah Wright and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayres to bolster their contention that Obama was a radical socialist and closet Muslim (how they could attack Obama’s Christian minister and still claim he was “really” a Muslim is pretty breathtaking in itself, reminiscent of the Nazi contention that the Jews were the masterminds of both international capitalism and the communist movement out to destroy it) whose mad schemes would bankrupt the country (as if the Republicans haven’t done a great job of that already!) and have us all speaking Arabic and praying to Mecca.

Then Sarah Palin got her 15 minutes of fame — and the soap opera began. She turned out to be so vindictive that she demanded the firing of Mike Wooten, the Alaska state trooper who had dared to divorce her sister — and when Alaska commissioner of public safety Walter Monegan refused, she fired him too. It also came out that, despite her ferocious support of abstinence-only sex education [though the Los Angeles Times reported on September 6 that her public statements during the 2006 campaign for governor of Alaska were inconsistent: she was abstinence-only in a questionnaire but suggested she'd support education about condoms and other contraceptives during a debate in Juneau], she’d been unable to teach that lesson to her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, who had inconveniently got herself pregnant by a boy she’d been dating for some time but hadn’t got round to marrying yet. (Score another one for “traditional family values.”)

And while Palin’s supporters have made a big to-do about her confronting the corrupt Alaska Republican establishment in general and Senator Ted Stevens — now under indictment — in particular, it turned out that she’d been as enthusiastic about using Stevens’ clout to get federal earmarks for her little town of Wasilla (population 6,715) as anyone else, down to hiring a former Stevens staff member as her city’s lobbyist. Three of Palin’s earmark request made it onto John McCain’s annual lists of the worst ones in the country. It also turned out that, to paraphrase John Kerry, Palin was for Stevens’ infamous “bridge to nowhere” before she was against it — and when she cancelled it, did she return the money to the federal government? No-o-o-o-o; she simply said she was going to keep it and think of other things to spend it on in Alaska.

Contrary to a lot of progressives’ wishful thinking, John McCain is still the likely winner of this year’s presidential election. His “maverick” reputation, though tarnished by the abject fealty he’s shown to the craziest elements in his party (in his convention speech he didn’t once mention the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill he co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy, killed by hard-line Republicans and the xenophobes of talk radio; or the campaign finance reform bill he and progressive Democratic Senator Russ Feingold got passed), remains stubbornly indestructible. He’s got a compelling personal story — I got the impression you weren’t allowed to speak at the Republican convention unless you mentioned McCain’s five years in a POW camp in Hanoi — and it was fascinating to hear the Republicans questioning how a mere legislator, author and “community organizer” (a term they pronounced with the familiar talk-radio sneer) could possibly go up against a War Hero, when four years ago they had sung exactly the opposite song.

McCain remains the likely winner because the Republican party has not only built up an amazing media infrastructure — there are two corporate media parties in this country, one essentially a propaganda arm of the Republican party and the other trapped in a corporate-mandated “objectivity” that allows expression of Right and center views but keeps out the Left — but because they’ve honed negative campaigning to a scientific skill. For all the talk about the “genius” of Karl Rove, he didn’t do anything that Lee Atwater hadn’t done before him, who hadn’t done anything that H. R. Haldeman hadn’t done before him, who hadn’t done anything that Murray Chotiner — Richard Nixon’s first political consultant and the man who pioneered the all-out negative campaigns we’ve become all too familiar with since — hadn’t done before him.

The recipe from the Republican convention is the same old Chotiner/Haldeman/Atwater/Rove one that got Nixon and both Bushes into the White House: solidify your support among the radical-Right base and neutralize the other candidate’s appeal by relentlessly demonizing him, turning him from a moderately appealing alternative into a swamp thing who’d be lucky to get his mother’s vote. In his review of Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland in the September 1-8 edition of The Nation, Thomas J. Sugrue wrote, “The [George] McGovern my classmates sent to resounding defeat in 1972 … was not a real man. He was a spectral creation of the politics of polarization.”

The Republican propaganda machine had done an excellent job of “spectralizing” Barack Obama (as they did with Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry) well before he got the nomination, so much so that just after McCain gave his acceptance speech CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck was able to do an entire hour-long show with four, count ’em, four authors who’d written best-selling books trashing Obama on flimsy, if not downright inaccurate, factual grounds. The “case” against Obama is he’s too elitist, he’s too weird, his name sounds too strange, he’s an outsider, he’s not really “one of us” — a strategy Republicans have used successfully against white Democrats but which will be even more effective against Obama because, while avoiding an overtly racist appeal, it “hooks” the latent racism of many Americans who buy into it and really think it means, “He’s too Black.”

I’d been dreading this fall’s campaign because I had a sinking feeling that McCain was just going to keep building on his own and his party’s propaganda machine’s momentum, broadening his lead in the polls week by week until he won the election in a 1972-sized blowout. Then he derailed his own machine by signing on to a relentlessly Right-wing platform that contradicts much of his public record, including an all-punishment immigration plank that had veteran radical-Right activist Phyllis Schlafly expressing almost orgasmic joy when Roger Hedgecock interviewed her on the convention floor — and by picking an ill-vetted, not-ready-for-prime-time running mate and setting her loose on the nation with a speech that made her sound more like Rush Limbaugh in drag than someone Americans might actually want one 72-year-old cancer survivor’s heartbeat away from the presidency.

My hope is that the Republican party has finally overreached itself and become too crazy, too relentlessly reactionary, too out of touch with the economic realities of a country in which their policies have made the rich immensely richer, sped the destruction of the middle class and virtually destroyed America’s industrial base. When McCain accepted the Republican nomination September 4, he told a few sad stories and mentioned a few workers’ names but all he had to offer people who’ve lost their jobs due to the de-industrialization of America was, “We’ll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower-paid one while they receive retraining.” (Admittedly, that’s about all Bill Clinton ever offered them, too.)

My fear is that the power of the Republican propaganda machine and the long tradition by which Americans have celebrated individual self-reliance and raised free-market capitalism to a virtual state religion has shifted the American balance of political power so far to the
Right that McCain’s nostrums will seem like everyday wisdom even to the people who are suffering the most from them. My fear is that John Mitchell’s prediction as manager of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign that “we’re going to move this country so far to the Right you won’t recognize it” has been so totally fulfilled that no Democrat can espouse even vaguely progressive ideas and still win the presidency.

And if that’s the case, then we ourselves are largely to blame for it. Both Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 ran as moderates. They didn’t plan to govern as progressives: they were pushed into doing so by the massive social movements of their times. In Roosevelt’s era those movements were organized labor, unemployed workers and veterans, and, most importantly of all, powerful and genuinely mass-based socialist and communist organizations that made liberal capitalists fear for the survival of their system if it didn’t reform. In Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s era, the mass movements were civil-rights organizations — first of African-Americans and then the movements of women, Latinos, other people of color (and, later, Queer people and people with disabilities) and the anti-war movement.

No such mass progressive or Left movements exist in the U.S. today — and the most important task of what shattered remnants of the U.S. Left still exist is to (re-)create them. That’s why people who don’t like working with the Democratic Party and don’t feel they can do so and still maintain faith with themselves and their consciences should be working outside the electoral system altogether rather than wasting their time running alternative political parties and fielding candidates doomed to miniscule vote percentages. The stark truth is that the radical Right has not only had its usual advantages over the radical Left — access to major corporate funding and publicity in the corporate media -— but they’ve consistently out-organized us as well. Until that changes, all progressives are going to get from presidential politics are a string of Republican presidents each more viciously hard-line radical-Right than the last, occasionally broken by a Clintonesque center-Right Democrat who offers only a slightly kinder, slightly gentler oppression in the name of “the Market.”