I just got off the phone with one of my friends, a hardened cynic and one of the brightest marketing minds of his generation. His voice was virtually quavering with excitement about the Bristol Palin “scandal.” I use quotes because, in my friend’s assessment, it is not really a scandal at all, but an act of sheer political genius that makes Karl Rove’s strategies seem like the work of a rank amateur.
While McCain was clearly gambling when he chose Palin, I doubt he’d have vetted her knowing her teenage daughter was pregnant. My friend disagrees. Call it the Springerification of presidential politics; if you can’t win on substance, give them a prurient story with an uplifting moral ending. Give them a sympathetic heroine – an outsider every(wo)man, sticking to her values come hell or high water or vicious attacks on Daily Kos. Give them a beleaguered daughter whose family rallies around her in a show of breathtaking cohesion. Give them bathos.
Thus, my friend’s thinking goes, is the Republican boilerplate of family values and the sanctity of life reified. Arch-conservatives disaffected by McCain will now turn out in the millions to cast their vote not for a candidate, but for a story.
McCain learned this trick of mastering the electorate’s emotions from Obama himself. Not that there’s anything prurient about a Harvard-educated lawyer turned community activist. But Obama’s ability to inspire, both with his words and his personal story, have already brought legions of new voters to the polls while creating fanatics out of the formerly apathetic.
So crank up the emotionalism and turn down the class. Forget the local boy who made good against all odds, let’s talk about the local girl gone bad. The morality-tale narrative will unfold as it always does: we can turn an unfortunate situation into something positive by sticking together, making the right choice, and, don’t ya know, keeping the faith.
That’s my friend’s thinking, anyway. His prediction: McCain in a landslide.
In my view, it could all backfire, smashing McCain’s campaign permanently. The Republicans are so off-message now that they’ll have a hard time finding their way back. Besides, stories of poor decisions that turn out well in the end only look good in hindsight. The message from the voters to Palin may well be: we like you, sister, but it sounds like you have some personal stuff to work out first.