The deeper malady afflicting conservatism and the GOP that the failed Palin strategy represents is the abandonment of persuasion and the reliance on demonization and fear, which was used notably against early conservative dissenters against the war and used also in the arguments for the war itself. In this case, we see demonization of her critics and the fear of Obama at work, because the positive case for her and McCain is so trivial as to be non-existent. Attacking opponents is all very well, but at some point you have to have something to show for your support. Instead, even as they have ignored the interests and demands of their constituents (except when faced with major revolts over immigration and now the bailout), the national GOP has redoubled its use of demonization to distract from its failure to serve the people who voted for them. The country has not changed all that much in the last four or eight years, but it has changed enough to make the demonization of the other side a losing proposition as the other side has now become at least temporarily larger.
This is exactly right, which is why I found the Wall Street Journal’s desperate efforts to link Obama to William Ayers so silly. Fruitless as well, because while Republican partisans will undoubtedly get riled up by Obama’s supposed affinity for domestic terrorism (trust me on this one: I was forced to sit through an hour of “The Mark Levin Show” yesterday), persuadable Democrats and Independents don’t have much patience for paranoid fantasies when the economy is collapsing around their ears.
This brings me to an interesting point. When Democrats faced electoral collapse circa 2002-2004 (and remember, this was a time when GOP wet dreams about a permanent, security-oriented Republican majority actually seemed plausible), they moved beyond the “mindlessly demonize your opponent” strategy after it became clear that Bush had won despite liberals’ best efforts to tar him as moronic, out of touch, and downright dangerous. Granted, all of these adjectives are undoubtedly true, but Bush is a sympathetic figure, and all the epithets in the world weren’t an effective substitute for a compelling presidential candidate.
Now the Right is presented with the same problem. McCain can barely explain his own domestic platform and Palin’s reputation for wonkery is, err, non-existent. The McCain campaign team has delivered several masterful attack ads, but their candidate has yet to step up and fill the vacuum as a plausible alternative to Obama.
Bush remains an appealing guy while Obama is perceived as aloof, cerebral, and culturally distant, so it’s quite possible that this strategy may work come November (wait for the inevitable Reverend Wright – “God Damn America” attack ads). But it won’t give McCain an electoral mandate to enact conservative reforms. Coupled with his obvious disinterest in domestic policy, a McCain Administration will be little more than a place-holder for the next election cycle, when liberals (if only by process of elimination) will finally manage to nominate an unobjectionable candidate. At this point, demonizing Obama may be the only plausible strategy left for McCain, but it’s not a solid foundation for credible conservative governance.