Twice in modern history very strong convention speeches have elevated politicians to an entirely different level of future potential and prominence. One, of course, was Barack Obama's keynote at the convention in Boston four years ago. The other, which I remember watching as a schoolboy Goldwaterite, was Ronald Reagan's speech supporting Goldwater at the San Francisco convention in 1964.
I don't think Sarah Palin's speech will be in that category.
She passed the "expectations" test -- despite coming after the very effective Rudy Giuliani --and brought the house down with cheers. She had a number of strong, biting lines -- including the one about John McCain being the only person on the ticket who had literally fought for the country, Here are the potential longer-term problems:
- No more Mr. Nice Guy. The speech was surprisingly negative and mocking. You can see why Rush Limbaugh has been such a fan of hers: if these words were delivered by someone older, less attractive, and male, they could have come straight from a Limbaugh radio monologue. The upside here is making "the base" much more enthusiastic than it was before. Potential drawback: having taken this tone, she's exposed herself to more direct, aggressive attack by the Dems than she has received so far. (So far, the Dems have been able to stand back and let the press do the anti-Palin work.) No more Mr. Nice Guy from Joe Biden or anyone else.
- The Hillary factor. The day-one theorizing about her selection was that she might draw some disaffected female Hillary supporters. I can see how the speech would motivate some previously-tepid conservatives. It is hard for me to imagine a lot of HRC Democrats -- either long-time feminists or people mainly worried about economic trends -- being attracted by the content or the tone of the speech.
- Fact checking. The speech took the "press is the enemy" theme to an extreme in dropping in a bunch of claims and factlets that the McCain team knows will be immediately picked apart by the press. For instance, her claimed opposition to earmarks and "bridge to nowhere." I guess they figure, they'll stick with their side of the story and say "there you go again!" when the press points out errors and holes.
- Abqaiq. The foreign policy grace notes in the speech, including pronouncing the phrase "Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia," struck me like George W. Bush's dropping in the names of foreign leaders during his 2000 campaign -- as a way of showing that he knew them. This doesn't remove the peril of what the first actual press conference on international issues, or the first debate with Joe Biden, might hold.
- Nothing off limits. Barack Obama has used his family as a prop from time to time -- most recently, bringing the charming girls onto the stage at the end of his convention speech. That's life in politics; everybody does it to some degree.Very few politicians do it as all-out as Sarah Palin just did, from citing the disabilities of her youngest child as part of her resume to including the shotgun groom of her elder daughter. I can't recall any spectacle comparable to Baby Trig being passed from Cindy McCain, to Trig's 7-year-old sister, to Palin herself when she ended the speech. Her husband looks charming, I have to say. From this point on it will be hard for her to declare anything about her personal or family life out-of-bounds.
- Throw the bums out. The policy/content heart of the speech was the idea that the old ways and old gang in DC need to be shaken up. This is another doubling-down bet on the base rather than an appeal to independents, because it depends on people not stopping to say: Wait a minute, what party has been in charge in DC for most of the last eight years? Where exactly are McCain's policies really different from Bush's?
To return to the main theme: both Reagan in 1964 and Obama in 2004 were effective because, apart from their personal skills, they added something to their party's constituency that had not been there before. Reagan began recruiting the "Reagan Democrats," starting with white Southerners. Obama tried to recruit people tired of divisive partisanship.
Sarah Palin, at least tonight, did not seem interested in bringing anyone new into the fold. A speech that was great in the convention hall. We'll see how it affects the electoral lineup.