Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



Republican Convention Day #2

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 3, 2008

For the past 30 years, political scientists have talked about the age of candidate centered politics. Last night at the Republican convention exemplified this as the focus was on John McCain and his life story.

The Republicans (the Democrats did it also) do this for two reasons. First, one of the two most important factors that influence the vote decision is whether a voter likes or dislikes a candidate (the other is policy agreement). This was especially important during a time of declining partisanship. Candidates could not rely on partisans alone to win so they emphasized their personal characteristics to appeal to voters. Second, McCain needs to distance himself from the Republican Party and George Bush because the Republican brand name has been run in the dirt due to the performance, real and perceived, of the Bush Administration.

So how did the Republicans do last night? Fairly well I believe. The mantra of the Democrats have been the "Bush-McCain years," "more of the same," etc. And one of the primary goals of the Republican convention was to rebrand the party more in McCain's image. His media narrative for years has been as the maverick -- whether in opposing pork barrel spending, pushing campaign finance reform, working on immigration reform, etc. That is also why he chose Gov. Palin because she also had that maverick/reform image.

Last night, Sen. Fred Thompson told a story of a maverick since the day he was born. Whether it was setting records for demerits earned at the Naval Academy, his choice of girlfriends, his time as a POW (especially refusing the opportunity to go home early), to his time in the Senate, he was a maverick. This story is meant to counter the Democratic narrative of "McSame" [as Bush]. The story of his time in a POW camp was particularly compelling.

Thompson was also able to idnetifiy the values of McCain and why they are something that voters should consider. One of Thompson's best lines was that being a POW did not qualify him for the presidency but showed his character which is important to being president. He then used his life story to show that McCain had the wisdom, judgment, experience, character, temperament, etc. to be president. This was a subtle contrast to the Democratic "celebrity" candidate.

I think Senator Joe Lieberman was just as effective because he is living proof of McCain's maverick image. The fact that a Democrat, and not just any Democrat, but the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2000 who ran against George Bush endorsed McCain is significant. Lieberman also did what others Republicans could not which is point out ways that McCain differs from Bush focusing on having more troops in Iraq after the invasion and supporting the surge before Bush made it his policy. Moreover, these cross party endorsements are rare and the fact that he not only did this, but spoke at teh convention and slammed the Democratic nominee is signficant. His direct appeal to independents and Democrats at the end of his speech to vote for John McCain reinforces his maverick image.

A few other comments on the night's activities. First, Republicans are going to have to more directly confront and attach Obama and the Democratic platform. McCain is making the campaign about personality which means that he needs to define Obama as much as himself. McCain's task of defining himself is easier because "maverick" has been the media narrative for 20 years. It is hard for the Democrats to change that and for the media to change their narrative after all this time.

Obama, on the other hand, is a lesser known person in the since that his newness means that he is still subject to definition. Last night, Thompson has some subtle digs at Obama but Republicans may need to be more direct like Lieberman who said "eloquence is no substitute for a record."

Second, the Republicans started to lay out the arguments against the Democratic policies which is also effective. Thompson did a good job of saying how corporate taxes don't affect anyone except those who buy groceries, fill up gas tanks, etc. He showed that tax increases are passed to consumers and that they will pay for it one way or the other. Showing how taxes would affect the little guy was also effective.

Third, stop whining over the press coverage of Sarah Palin. Attacking the liberal media is easy in a Republican crowd but is less effective than directly confronting the arguments against Palin. And you need more substantive arguments that "commander-in-chief of the Alaskan national guard" to argue that she is ready to be president.

Fourth, Joe Liberman's days as a Democrat are numbered. I understand that he has not ties to the Senate Democrats after he lost the CT Democratic primary and their campaign against him in November. But, his attacks on Obama went too far for his own good. When he told Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid that he would speak at the Republican convention, he said that he would discuss the positive of McCain and not attack Obama or Democratic policies. He failed on the last two points and that is unacceptable to Senate Democrats. Democrats needed his vote to organize the Senate in this congress and that is why they protected his seniority and allowed him to chair the Government Reform and Homeland Security Committee. No more. Sen. Reid and the Democrats must punish Lieberman for his heresy. Even if they need his vote for 60 in the Senate to break filibusters, they must punish him. Because if they do not, the Senate leadership sends a signal to every other Democrat that opposing the party leads to no consequences. They cannot have that and enact their agenda in the coming congress. The Democrats should also curtail money to CT and secretly recruit someone to run against Lieberman who can defeat him not just in a primary but also in the general election.

Tonight, is the big night for Palin. She needs to make a great speech to reverse media narratives about her so that she is not the focus of the campaign and before a negative narrative is developed ala Dan Quayle. This is literally the "speech of her life" and will soon know how well she did.