Though she’d succeeded in keeping the news cycle all to herself for these past six days, few of us had actually heard Sarah Palin speak. Tonight’s performance at the RNC introduced us not only to Gov. Palin and her family, but to an entirely new political brand.
Amid a sea of pasty delegates in bad suits and idiotic hats, she delivered a speech that was notable not for its soaring, grandiloquent rhetoric, but for its lack of it. There was no riffing on the great political orators, no high-minded invocations or classical references. Rather, Palin’s speech was by turns folksy, sarcastic, mean, and, finally, damn powerful. It was delivered in Palin’s odd drawl, in plain language that was less political careerist than, appropriately enough, small-town mayor and PTA board member.
I have written before that it is Palin’s blue-collar street cred even more than her gender that endears her so to the Republican base. Which is why it would have been impossible for any candidate but her to strike the nerve of cultural discontent that has been rumbling beneath the surface for some time.
What the media and political establishment has gotten wrong about the so-called “culture war” – and will probably continue to get wrong – is that religion and race have little to do with it. Rather, it’s an issue of mutual misunderstanding between city and country, the highly-educated and the merely educated, the coasts and flyoverland. This is the chord Palin managed to strike so perfectly tonight, mocking Obama as an effete dilettante who condescends to those who own guns, or believe in God, or work with their hands, while simultaneously believing his experience as a “community organizer” is so special that it qualifies him to lead the free world.
Palin, along with the other speakers tonight, were generally freer and more vicious in lampooning their opponents than the Democrats had been with them. Again, this plays into the anger at Obama’s perceived condescension and the contempt of the “elite” for the rural unwashed. Thus Palin’s speech took on the air of a folksy rejoinder to the Democrats – the country mouse teaching the city mouse a thing or two.
At the end of the speech, to thunderous, nearly manic, applause, Palin was joined on stage by her family, including her pregnant teenage daughter, Bristol, and infant son, Trig. While trotting out the families of candidates is old hat, with Palin it was masterful. Suddenly, the ruthless and capable Sarah Barracuda (as she was known in high school) became Sarah the mother and wife. It was, in a single moment, the crystallization of what the Republicans would like their brand to be: tough yet loving, strong yet gentle, certain but tolerant.
In short, Sarah Palin is the new face of the culture war – and a far more attractive one than Pat Buchanan.