Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



Republican Convention Day #3

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 4, 2008

Last night, the Republicans succeeded in their goal of undermining Obama's candidacy by attacking his qualifications while promoting Palin's qualifications.

First, Gov. Sarah Palin delivered the speech of her life and wowed the delegates and the press pundits. She was poised, strong, and forceful in her delivery while effectively using humor to make her points. The comments about someone else helped write the speech is immaterial because speechwriters help every politician writes speeches. She helped and she delivered it well. This does not mean that she is out of the woods though. The media will continue to investigate her past, scrutinize her statements, and hold her to a high standard in the debates and press conferences. But that is as it should be. After all, she will be one heartbeat from the presidency and we deserve to know her character and positions.

Second, the Republicans did a good job of rebutting Obama's story and undermining his qualifications while burnishing Palin's. Both Palin and Guiliani did this, and did it with humor. Using humor is particularly effective because people will repeat the joke to others which spreads the message through more neutral parties. Plus, anytime you can knife someone with your comment, smile, and use humor, you do not come off looking like an attack dog. This is important because as a VP candidate you have to attack your opponent. But Palin wants to stay above the partisan din to look "presidential" while also not undermining the warm persona most people have of women.

Undermining qualifications and identification is important because as I blogged last week, we talked about how important that is to get people to accept you before they listen to your message. Palin effectively did this with comments like:

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

"I might add that 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.”

"Here’s how I look at the choice Americans face in this election. 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."

These comments go directly after Obama on experience and his claim that he understands everyday people. The small town references were particularly effective because most people live in small towns. This is especially key to reaching out to working class whites, many of whom live in small towns. This was reinforced when she addressed her comments to factory workers in OH, those involved in clean coal in PA, and farmers in MN.

These comments also contribute to her claims to be qualified. This and her list of accomplishments in Alaska such as ethics reform and a natural gas pipeline contrasted with someone who writes books but no major legislation is effective. She contributed to her qualifications by talking about something with international implications that she is well-versed in: energy. She said that the US needs energy independence because we cannot rely on Russia, Venezuela, and the Midle East so we need to drill and invest in alternative energy. Her discussing the issues and mentioning a specific oil field in Saudi Arabia makes it look like she knows what she is talking about.

In promoting her credentials, I am a bit surprised that she did not discuss her days as mayor. According to press reports, she adopted policies that led the town to almost double in size, bringing jobs in, and improving education. She could have connected this to experience to help improve the economy and solve national problems. This is a double edged sword though in that you admit the economy is not as it should but polls show people feel this way regardless of economic statistics and it distances the ticket from Bush even more.

So while Palin effectively burnished her credentials, she still faces trouble. I still have problems equating Wasilla and Juneau to politics in Chicago, Springfield, and DC. No offense to Alaska, but politics is a full contact sport in the latter cities every single day of the week. And while Alaska does have rough and tumble politics, it does not have them day-in and day-out.

The Palin speech was also key in claiming the change mantle. The "career of change" compared to "talking change" reference and there is "good and bad change" lines were good. Also, she was able to explain how her story of taking on corruption in Alaska politics, staring down the oil companies, and fighting pork barrell spending contributed to the narrative. She needs to be careful with this though in that she indicated support for the "bridge to nowhere" at one point and while the bridge was not built, she still kept the money from the federal government to spend elsewhere. If she is seen as a hypocrite, she becomes more like the "old politics" and not change.

The Republicans also began to focus more on policy differences. This is something that I believe both parties need to focus more on. Democratic theory is based on the idea that people vote for the party that is closest to them on the issues. So far, the parties are promoting biography more than policy. The Republicans have focused on the implications of Obama's tax policies but they need to focus more on his specifics, or lack thereof. Taxes are not the only issue the public is concerned with. The parties need to focus on their proposals for education, health care, energy independence, etc. At this point, both candidates focus on promises and avoid the details.

So after night three, the Republicans are on track. With all of the media bruhaha over Palin, she probably had a large audience watching and her effective speech probably dismissed some concerns over her qualifications and began to undermine the Obama candidacy. While she is not out of the woods on this charge, she earned herself some breathing room. McCain, now, needs to continue this narrative, discuss policy, and lay out his vision for America.