By Eugene Robinson
ST. PAUL, Minn.—Talk about role reversal. The Republican Party, which scoffs at the nonsense of “identity politics,” has staked everything on the compelling life stories of its presidential and vice presidential candidates. The Democratic Party, ever conscious of the diversity of modern America, is doing everything it can to blur the lines of race, class and gender.
As if anyone thought otherwise, this is going to be an interesting few weeks until Nov. 4.
I guess I didn’t drink enough Kool-Aid before Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s convention speech, which was received inside the Xcel Energy Center here as if Ronald Reagan had returned from the great beyond. I heard criticism of the Democratic ticket, demonization of the media, praise of John McCain’s war record, characterization of Washington as an evil place, promises of lower taxes and a firm but nonspecific pledge to enact thoroughgoing reform.
None of that is exactly groundbreaking at a Republican convention. But the point wasn’t the speech. It was the speaker. Palin told the nation very little about what she stands for or even what she has accomplished. Instead, her aim was to show the nation who she is.
The reason for framing her introduction to the American people this way is obvious. Palin, unlike most Americans, would like to see abortion banned even in cases of rape or incest. Her record as a mayor and a governor is that of a talented rising star, but it’s a politician’s record, full of reversals and compromises. And nothing we know about her suggests that a rhetorical stroll through the minefields of foreign policy would have been a good idea.
Instead, she offered one message: Here’s who I am. Career woman, mother (specifically, lipstick-wearing hockey mom), loving wife, avid hunter, caring daughter, fierce fighter, product of her own spunk and determination. After the speech, Republican strategists were rapturous over her potential appeal to women voters who perform similar feats of multitasking every day without complaint or recognition. The hope was not that these women would agree with Palin’s views, but that they would see their lives reflected in hers.
Until Palin’s star turn, this convention had been primarily about another biography—McCain’s. Again and again, speakers have reminded us of his military service and the torture he endured as a prisoner of war. Perhaps because McCain is still not fully in line with the Republican Party’s activist base on a number of issues, praise of his record in Washington has pretty much been confined to national security issues and his newly appreciated status as a “maverick.”
Delegates to this convention, by the way, seem to have convinced themselves that they are all mavericks. Whatever happened to the old truism about how Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line? And if everyone in the party becomes a maverick, then aren’t they all just conforming to a new “maverick” norm? But I digress.
The McCain-Palin ticket is threatening to become the Biography Channel of this election. The thing is, though, that Republicans don’t have much of a track record at this kind of identity politics. They’re good at driving wedges. But creating empathy? Feeling our pain?
That’s what Democrats are supposed to be good at. This year, however, the Democratic Party has a standard-bearer whose biography is different from that of any other major-party presidential candidate in history. Barack Obama’s success has come not from convincing voters that his is a quintessentially American story—although he is working hard to send that message—but from appealing across demographic lines.
Obama’s pitch isn’t: “Here’s who I am.” It has to be: “Here’s the promise of a brighter future.” That’s what his set-piece speeches, such as the one at Invesco Field in Denver last week, seek to accomplish: They invite people to envision a better nation and a better world.
The two parties haven’t completely changed places. Democrats will have Joe Biden spend lots of quality time in Pennsylvania reminding voters that he was born in Scranton. Republicans will hammer home their promise to keep America safe, with the implication that the Democrats might not.
But after the two conventions, it looks as if Obama and Biden are going to do their best to focus voters’ attention on issues—the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, energy and the environment. And it looks as if McCain and Palin have decided to run on a platform of personal history.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group