Palin and the mastery of illusion

Democrats would be foolish to underestimate Sarah Palin - not because her assertions are substantive (on the contrary, last night she uncorked a long string of fact-challenged howlers), but because of her effectively assertive style.

And style trumps substance, particularly on television. What viewers hear is not nearly as important as what they see and how what they see makes them feel. And I'll wager that a large share of the viewers last night felt good vibes for a feisty "everywoman" who invoked the small-town verities so often ("I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town") that any second I expected her to morph into John Mellencamp. We can all debate whether the best criteria for a vice president is whether the candidate is as average as you or I, but, for now, suffice it to say that Palin easily passes the stagecraft test. And Americans generally love it when a new star takes the stage.

Harry says, "Say what?"

This new star delivered her scripted lines with great verve, even when the lines didn't make a lick of sense. Not that this matters, of course, but let's do a quick review anyway, for the edification of the reality-based community:

1. While reviewing John McCain's miracle rise after his summer '07 plummet, she scoffed at how "the pollsters and pundits" wrote him off. That phrase is code for "the liberal media elite" (a favorite whipping boy at this convention), but the fact is that virtually all commentators, at all ends of the political spectrum, wrote off McCain a year ago when his original campaign team imploded. Indeed, the reaction among conservatives was almost gleeful; their attitude was "good riddance," because they never liked McCain anyway. For instance, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin launched a "McCain campaign death watch," and asked, "So, what will the exact expiration date of the McCain '08 campaign be?"

2. In Palin's alternative reality, the media elite was rebuked by the voters who flocked to McCain during the primaries; as she put it, "the voters knew better." The facts are far more interesting. McCain was saved in the primaries by independents, moderates, and crossover Democrats who were permitted to vote in open contests. In the primaries that mattered most, the exit polls showed that McCain was consistently spurned by conservative Republican voters...the ideological soulmates of the GOP delegates who were cheering Palin in the hall.

3. Palin bragged about her gubernatorial tenure in Alaska by declaring, "Our state budget is under control. We have a surplus." Moreover, she "championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress." Actually, it's not so hard to get the budget under control in an economy that's based so heavily on oil; indeed, Alaska is enjoying a boom thanks in part to the same energy price rise that is widely condemned elsewhere in America. And as for her assailing of earmark spending, she omitted the fact that she has long reaped the fruits of congressional earmark spending, feeding at the federal trough ever since she served as a small-town mayor (the mayoral tab: $27 million; her requested gubernatorial tab: $750 million). This is how the game is played in Alaska, a state long dominated by the GOP, where roughly one-third of the economy hinges on federal spending (thereby contradicting all the GOP convention talk about "cutting the size of government.")

4. Palin last night falsely claimed - as she did in her first appearance last Friday - that she told Congress, "Thanks, but no thanks" when Congress earmarked federal money for the Alaska bridge to nowhere. As I mentioned here the other day, she actually was for the bridge before she was against it. She didn't cancel the project until it became clear that the embarrassed lawmakers in Washington were pulling back the money and that Palin would thus be forced to foot the bill out of the state treasury. But Palin may yet succeed with convincing people that her lie is the truth, because she tells it with so much moxie.

5. She twice asserted that "victory in Iraq is finally in sight." Aside from the fact that Palin didn't bother to define what she meant by "victory," had you heard this news anywhere else? I certainly hadn't. Did Gen. David Petraeus get that memo?

6. She compared herself to Harry Truman, because he too had some small-town roots. The big problem with that analogy is that Truman, when picked by FDR to join the ticket in 1944, had already served in Washington as a U.S senator for 10 years; he had also chaired a special Senate committee on the war. He exposed military waste and corruption, and saved the federal treasury $15 billion.

7. She declared that "I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment...the Washington elite." It's a nice populist line, akin to Jimmy Stewart's aw-shucks appeal in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the problem is that, for most of the past eight years, the Washington political establishment has been dominated by the GOP - starting with the "K Street Project," by which corporate lobbyists wrote the bills for, and traded favors with, the Republican congressional majority. And sometimes the symbiotic relationship was criminal; witness the jailed Jack Abramoff. Yet the delegates cheered Palin for bashing the political establishment, which means that either they were mocking their own party (nah), or practicing willful amnesia.

8. In another swipe at the so-called liberal media, she declared that "Here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to serve their good opinion." The delegates predictaby cheered the common enemy. The reality, however, is that Palin's credentials have been questioned by all kinds of commentators, including ex-Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan (who unwittingly said on an open microphone yesterday that Palin's ascent is "political bullshit"), and ex-McCain advisor/GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who called the choice "cynical" on the same open mic. But perhaps the most dismissive commentary I've heard is this: "Palin's experience in government makes Barack Obama look like George C. Marshall." That line comes to us courtesy of conservative David Frum - the ex-Bush speechwriter who helped craft the phrase about the Axis of Evil.

(In fairness to Palin, the howler of the night was uttered by Mike Huckabee, who wowed the crowd with this bit of lunatic arithmetic: Palin "got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States." Well, let's see here....Biden got 75,165 votes in the primaries. Palin got 616 votes in her first mayoral race, and 909 in her second, for a grand total of 1,525. I just checked my calculator, and 75,165 is a larger number than 1,525. I trust that even though Palin, like Huckabee, would like to see creationism taught in the public schools, surely she would endorse the continued teaching of math skills, even if her surrogates are exposed as fabulists.)

It also might have been interesting last night to hear Palin discuss the national security credentials that warrant placing her a heatbeat away from power in the 9/11 era; perhaps she could have repeated McCain's line about how she is qualified because "Alaska is right next to Russia."

But I doubt that much of this matters. Substance can't compete with style and symbolism. In particular, as communications expert (and occasional Democratic advisor) George Lakoff put it the other day, Republicans are traditionally "strong on the symbolic dimension of politics."

A perky, rootin'-tootin' hockey mom who drives herself to work...that's iconic small-town stuff, an appealing cultural metaphor for those everyday Americans who think that all Washington needs is a dose of everyday gumption. It's an illusion, of course, because it masks the reality of the Washington Republican elite, and the manner in which that elite has long operated, but election campaigns have long turned on the mastery of illusion. That's the abiding genius of the GOP. They've made a hash of governing since Bush came to town, but they sure can market.