Gary Dorrien: Back to the Subject

When the Democratic Convention started, Barack Obama’s main challenge was to change the focus of the election from himself to a miserably failing economy, including its energy-and-environment dimension. By the time the Republican Convention started, Obama had the same problem with the Sarah Palin phenomenon. The McCain campaign would love to have an election that revolves around Obama and Palin. More than ever, Obama needs to turn the election into a referendum on larger matters.

John McCain had no chance of uniting the Republican Convention by himself, let alone of energizing and elating the party’s right-wing base. He was the first Republican since 1948 to win the nomination without the support of the party base, and he knew that flag-waving militarism would take him only so far at the convention and in the election campaign. He struck a political gusher by turning to Palin, which electrified the party base and improved McCain’s chances with evangelicals, Reagan Democrats, Westerners, hunters, non-feminist women, and perhaps suburban independents.

Palin does not help McCain in his weakest area, his bankruptcy on economy/energy/ecology. Her knowledge base about the world beyond Alaska is worrisome. And it is very much in question whether McCain’s Janus-faced convention strategy will play for two months of everyday campaigning. The Republican Convention featured three nights of right-wing bombast for the base, all approved by the candidate, followed by the candidate’s assurance that he floats above partisanship and attack politics. That dubious combination smacks of the Fox Network’s claim to be “fair and balanced,” which no one takes seriously. McCain needs to be careful not to flunk the laugh test.

But his desperate turn to Palin has already paid off enormously. Palin is a huge plus for the Republicans in her current role, dwarfing the contribution that any other running mate would have made. She is charismatic and unlike any nominee of the past. Her strong, spunky, skillfully delivered speech was by far the highlight of the convention. It was also the most sarcastic and mean-spirited acceptance speech in memory at any convention, filled with mocking zingers that apparently are her stock in trade.

Rudy Guliani tossed out lots of red meat, but he was speaking as a primary campaign loser and convention energizer, not a nominee. Mitt Romney won the prize for red meat, declaring that even the Roberts Supreme Court is liberal, like the rest of “liberal Washington.” But Romney had his eye on 2012, not this November. Still, envisioning himself as the favorite of the party’s culture-warring base, he had in mind Goldwater in 1960 and Reagan in 1976 — passionate cries from the far right that paid dividends four years later. Somehow Romney has not absorbed that the evangelical right will never rally behind a Mormon, especially him. In the meantime, Palin sailed past Romney, Mike Huckabee, and all other claimants to the favor of the religious right, shoring up a presidential nominee who was never in the running for it.

For the Republican base, Palin’s nomination is a realized fantasy and a delicious play to Hillary Clinton’s supporters. For the Obama campaign, it is a dangerous distraction from what the election needs to be about. For Democrats, the economy is the key to winning the election. For Republicans, the key is to drive up voter unease with Obama.

On the edge of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Republicans had astonishingly little to say about skyrocketing mortgage foreclosures and job losses. The exception was Fred Thompson, who ridiculed Democrats (with an echo of whiner-hating Phil Gramm) for complaining about economic stress.

The case for throwing out the ruling party is awfully strong; thus the Republicans rarely mentioned George W. Bush or even used the word “Republican.” The U.S. economy needs to create at least 100,000 jobs per month to keep up with a growing population. This year the economy has lost jobs in every month, totaling 605,000 lost jobs in 2008 thus far. McCain, mindful of the Phil Gramm fiasco, aptly remarked that the Bush Administration seems not to care about the human suffering behind these figures. But McCain has no plan that differs from Bush or Gramm.

The mortgage meltdown is colossal, totaling $2.5 trillion of lost value thus far. To a large degree it was caused by the Bush Administration’s ideologically driven refusal to sensibly regulate the mortgage industry, but McCain has the same ideology. The Bush budget deficits are similarly enormous and self-inflicted, fueled chiefly by Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and five years of consequences for invading Iraq. But McCain would make the deficits worse by cutting corporate taxes, eliminating the alternative minimum income tax, ramping up military spending, and making permanent Bush’s tax cuts for the upper class.

Keeping Bush’s tax cuts would cost the federal treasury $1 trillion over four years. McCain’s only idea for cutting the budget deficit is to cut earmarks. If he somehow managed to cut all of them, the savings would total only $19 billion per year. The U.S. spends more than that in Iraq every two months. For McCain to keep a straight face about earmarks, he must explain a running mate who specializes in competing for them. As mayor of tiny Wasilla, Palin lobbied for earmarks totaling $27 million, and in less than two years of governing Alaska she sought nearly $750 million of special federal funding, by far the greatest per capita request by any U.S. governor. Her gas pipeline for Alaska would be a monument to her skill at the earmark game. She boasts of taking on the oil industry, but that was only for a larger share of windfall profits, not to break America’s addiction to oil. The oil companies are hoping fervently for a McCain-Palin victory.

McCain once had a sensible position on the Bush tax cuts, which he dropped to make himself competitive in Republican presidential primaries. He once aspired to be known as a green conservative, but on his way to the nomination he deliberately avoided voting on all eight attempts to pass a bill that would expand America’s wind and solar industries. He once opposed offshore drilling on the ground that the environment matters, but he dropped environmentalism on the way to the nomination. He still opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), savoring his last dissent from Bush-style oil politics, but now he has a running mate who advocates drilling in ANWR.

McCain’s alliance with a drill-everywhere enthusiast is apparently a case of one thing leading to another, not a coincidence. One of Palin’s chief boosters for the vice-presidential nod was neoconservative pundit and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who touted her brassy toughness and urged McCain operatives not to rule her out. In mid-August, Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes urged McCain to meet with Palin to hear her case for drilling in ANWR. McCain indicated that he was willing to do so. The Weekly Standard, not content to wait for an actual meeting, announced McCain’s promise in a splashy article by Hayes featuring a picture of Palin. Now that lightning has struck for Palin, McCain’s conversion on ANWR drilling is probably immanent.

mccainpalinBannerII.jpgThat gives the Obama campaign two enormous distractions to overcome–the endless fascination of Obama and the explosion of fascination with Palin. This week, while Palin studies up on the world, the election is mostly about her. A certain amount of time has to be spent highlighting her howlers and extremism. For example, in her convention speech Palin claimed that Obama has never authored a single major law or reform, “not even in the state senate.” Either she did not know the truth or did not feel constrained by it. Obama pushed through two major bills in Illinois dealing with racial profiling by police and the recording of interrogations in potential death penalty cases, and in the Senate he has been a leader on ethics reform legislation and intercepting illegal shipments of weapons of mass destruction.

But dwelling defensively on Palin and her worldview is a loser for the Democrats, who must summon the discipline and moxie to swing the discussion back to jobs, homes, credit, energy, the environment, and the world.

Democrats should not assume that an electoral windfall awaits when Palin debates Joe Biden. Palin is sharper than George W. Bush in give-and-take exchanges, and the mention of Bush calls up painful memories. In 2000, Al Gore wiped the floor with Bush in the first debate, but the media fixated on Gore’s grunts and sighs. In the second debate Bush relied on slogans to cover his ignorance of foreign policy, but it didn’t matter; Gore shut down and the story was still about his strangeness. By then Gore’s lead was gone and the election was a toss-up.

The debates are enormously important this year, as is the necessity of mounting a focused, essentially populist campaign. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Obama is weak in all four of the crucial swing states that will decide the election—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Hillary beat him badly in Ohio and Pennsylvania, though Biden is now helping Obama in Pennsylvania; he has never competed in Michigan and Florida; and Florida may be out of reach.

In the past eight years nearly all U.S. economic growth went to the top five percent of earners, while the middle class was saved from drowning only by taking on greater debt. But now the debt resort has reached its outer limit, and middle class and working class people are losing their homes and jobs. We need massive new investments in education, health care, and green technology to meet our human and ecological needs and to utilize the productive capacity of the economy. The nations that succeed economically over the next generation will be the ones that successfully convert to alternative forms of energy. The others will decay and choke on their waste.

If Obama can summon his inner populist in a disciplined, passionate, compelling manner, he can win the election and put the U.S. on a better course. If he doesn’t, he won’t.

–Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University.