Alex Massie

Home is Where the Heartland Is

Text settings

Somewhere, Mark Penn is having a terrible day. He must feel like leaning out his office window and screaming, "I told you so, you bloody fools! But would you listen? Would you? No, no you bloody well wouldn't..." Remember the memo he passed around the Clinton campaign on March 19th 2007? You should, because I rather think the Republican party has.

To recap, Penn noted that Obama's campaign for the Democratic party's nomination was supported by four factors: 1. Authenticity, 2. Left/Right appeal, 3. [Being] Black,  4. New and fresh. That was true then and it remains true today. But Penn also saw four weaknesses: 1. Lack of experience, 2. Lack of American roots, 3. Removed from working man/woman, 4. Phony/Just another politician. A good deal of this was also true then and some of it remains so today.

Penn then advised Clinton that:

His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values...

Let's explicitly own "American" in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't...

We are never going to say anything about his background - we have to show the value of ours when it comes to making decisions, understanding the needs of most American - the invisible Americans...

Isn't this precisely the strategy that the McCain-Palin campaign is going to pursue? Clinton couldn't quite bring herself to do it. and for good reason, if she'd followed this scorched earth strategy she'd have split the party in half and made it, I think, almost impossible for her to have beaten McCain in November. (One example: she'd have lost huge numbers of black voters.) So it would, as they say, have been a Pyrrhic victory. The reward for destroying Obama would come at too great a cost.

For that we may be thankful. It would have been an ugly, dispiriting business. Worse than that, in fact, since it would make one wonder what a black politician would have to do, what he would have to be, to get elected. (Flippant answer: a Republican?) Or to put it another way, one might imagine a black politician with a stronger resume standing for President, but it's difficult to believe that said candidate would be blessed with Obama's obvious political skills.  

But I'm afraid that if McCain wins the reaction elsewhere in the world will be that America just won't vote for the black guy. The european media will see it as confirmation that the United States remains, deep in its dark heart, a fundamentally racist society. Of course this is overly-simplistic, but there you have it. In other words, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it is (almost) impossible for John McCain to win the election on his own merits.

That, of course, need not concern the Republican campaign unduly. Sarah Palin's speech last night suggests that the GOP is quite prepared to adopt the Penn playbook. Deep down, I think many Democrats secretly fear this.

Perhaps "hope" and "change" can prevail against such an assault (at the moment I'd still say Obama is favourite to win) but the power of  "USA! USA! USA!" (a nationalist chant that, for understandable and obvious historical reasons, sounds dangerous and troubling to european ears) ought not to be under-estimated. That's doubly so when the GOP ticket comprises a bona fide war hero and a woman who might have been designed to express a certain kick-ass maternal ideal of the American id. These are powerful forces, even if one may also wonder if the GOP of 2008 is quite as in touch with "ordinary" America, in its gut, as it has been for most of the past 40 years.

Until Palin spoke, I rather thought this GOP convention looked and sounded like 1996. Angry and unsure how best to attack an opponent for whom the party has little real respect in anything other than purely political terms. Angry and unsure and also somewhat resigned to defeat. It had been a convention that seemed to be going through the motions; dutiful rather than inspiring. Was McCain going to be Dole re-heated? That seemed a definite possibility.

Now, yes, there's more to be done in terms of offering McCain's recipe for "real" reform (which may need to be, as I've suggested, a curious, even baffling, blend of Perot and Sarkozy) but you can now see a way forward for the GOP ticket. And much of that is down to that little woman from Wasilla, Alaska. 

There's one more line mark Penn wrote for Hillary that could perhaps be adapted for McCain-Palin: "This is no time for rookies... she may not be a new face, but she will give this country a new start." That could easily become, "This is no time for rookies, John McCaiin may not be a new face, but he and Sarah Palin will give this country a new start". Would that be enough? Perhaps not, but the game is more properly afoot now than it was just 48 hours ago...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSociety