We went to visit Pearl Harbour yesterday. Can you imagine doing a guided tour of the War Memorial in Canberra and being instructed to stay silent because this is a solemn place? When you visit the memorial to the Arizona which was the pride of the fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbour, that is exactly what you are told. Unlike the Australian War Memorial, the Arizona is not just a memorial but a graveyard. It is built over the wreck of the ship which still contains most of the bodies of the men who died in her. Yet even so, it was eerie to have a crowd of 100 moving around it in almost total silence – very un-Australian.
Which reminds me of how seriously the US takes it manifestation as a military power, and how seriously it views the sacrifices of its armed service-men. This is one reason I disagree with my fellow blogger’s assessment of the choice of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate.
We polled Australians earlier this year on who they wanted as Democrat nominee, and in the analysis that I did I wondered about how substantial Obama (the “West Wing” candidate) was. Substance has always been his weakness, and Palin underlines the weakness brilliantly.
In terms of substance it is a no contest between McCain and Obama. McCain embodies the American patriot. He has partaken of that collective US military sacrament, and because of his particular history as not just a “warrior”, but a noble one, is above question. You have to metaphorically hold your tongue in his presence, just like you do on The Arizona memorial. Watching him on TV he has the assuredness that comes from a life built on that personal capital – of being beyond reproach.
There is no way that Obama can match that, so he has turned the conversation to other things. His appeal hasn’t been based on substance, but on hopes and fancies. As the fantasy is always, at least iniitally, more enticing than the reality he’s ahead. McCain knows that, and knows that he has to play “catch-up”. That means taking some risks.
We know about the “audacity of hope”, but Obama has no policies that can match his rhetoric, showing just how “audacious” his campaign is. Instead of substance he is trading on rhetoric, and the American belief that “all men are created equal”. His is a human rights campaign based around the symbolism of voting for a member of a minority for president.
Palin is a risk, but as her performance yesterday shows, not as big a risk as those who don’t know her might have thought. She mightn’t be able to match Obama on rhetoric, but she can more than match him on “cut through”.
More importantly she turns his narrative on its head, shifting the debate from one about human rights and symbolic firsts into one about substance. She does this in a number of ways.
The fact that compared to McCain she is quite insubstantial underscores just how flimsy Obama’s story is in this regard, particularly if she can be shown to be just as substantial as Obama. It blunts the Democrats’ attack.
McCain’s choice of her also undermines Obama’s anti-establishment credentials. While Obama may have been the outsider, that is a status that he lost as soon as he became the Democrat favourite. But he could still claim to speak from outside the Beltway. The choices of running mates changes all that. Obama tried to shore up his substance by choosing Biden, a beltway insider – he knows where his weakness is. McCain underscores that weakness by declaring that he has no need of additional substance, and chooses from about as far away from the beltway as you can get and still be on the North American continent and involved in politics.
But at the same time as it underlines McCain’s substance it also adds to his outsider status allowing him to put a black man in the unlikely position of the establishment darling. With politicians so much on the nose, if McCain is to win he has to be a non-politician politician. Palin helps him here. Like McCain, she is a rebel, and as a woman she is a member of a “minority” (if you can call slightly more than 50% of the population a minority). She is also a “redneck”, albeit an acceptable one, and will resonate with southern voters. Despite what I might think about creationism for example, it is probably a majority belief in many parts of the US, particularly in the south, an area where Obama was already behind with many voters for racial reasons.
US and Australian election dynamics are similar. To be sure of winning you have to speak for the voiceless against the elites. That means to some extent persuading majority groups that they have no political influence. Since the beginning of this campaign Obama was the one in front on that score. McCain’s choice of Palin takes his advantage away from him. This will be a really fascinating election campaign, and I think McCain might just win, striking a blow for another powerful minority – those over 70.