Tonight’s Republican speeches reveal quite a bit about how the rest of the election will play out. McCain began this election beloved by the press and expected to compensate for the lack of right-wing base enthusiasm by going hard for independents and swing voters, using his appeal as a straight-talking maverick.
That strategy is in tatters. Tonight was a full-throated reversion to what has become the default posture for the right: resentment, tribalism, nationalism, and fear. After Carly Fiorina’s bland and widely ignored remarks, the rest of the night was pure red meat. I was somewhat surprised — I thought they’d use Palin as a hook to bring in mild-mannered soccer moms, but her speech was just as hyperpartisan as the rest. Instead of taking her appeal to the center, they are using her to elevate the culture wars.
Obviously I’m not a disinterested observer, and no more able to say what "real Americans" thought than any other media gasbag, but to me it all came off as tinny and almost surreal. It wasn’t exactly a policy-filled message in previous years either, but this time around the lack of policy specifics has become conspicuous. It’s purely gestural, one shopworn trope after another with all details stripped. (See Chris Hayes’ sharp post on this.)
There’s Romney railing against "liberal Washington," as though six years of unrestricted Republican rule never happened. Railing against government spending, which has ballooned under his party’s watch. Talking about restoring Constitutional freedoms, when his president has repeatedly abrogated them. And always, the final refuge of the conservative scoundrel: a sense of aggrievement and persecution at the hands of media elites.
Is there anything stranger than a room full of affluent, privileged white people who have run the country for almost a decade cheering wildly for a provincial small-town girl who promises to shake up Washington?
As strange as the populism has become, nowhere is it more bizarre than on the subject of energy. Somehow drilling — offering historically profitable oil companies access to protected American ecosystems so that they can make more money by selling our oil on the world market — has become a crie du coeur for the Little Guy. Somehow building nuclear plants, the greatest example of corporate welfare in the last half century, is something They won’t let us do, another baleful result of political correctness.
At one point during Giuliani’s speech, the entire auditorium, thousands and thousands of people, began chanting in unison, "drill baby drill! Drill baby drill!" Giuliani smiled at first but then tried to tamp it down and eventually started talking over it. He’s not exactly the most judicious politician, but even he could sense that there was something deeply, deeply weird about it. (Perhaps the only weirder moment of the night was when Palin castigated the media and delegates on the floor, en masse, started shouting and gesturing angrily up toward the media booth — I felt a brief twinge of fear that I was about to witness actual violence.)
The policies of the economic royalists are still being packaged as populism, despite the grim evidence of the last eight years — and the base is now chanting about it. What’s next? Will the base take up arms about a tax that only affects people making more than $2 million? Oh, right.
To be fair, the speeches by Giuliani and Palin were masterful examples of the art form. Giuliani knows how to use mockery and contempt like few other speakers, and Palin clearly relished playing the "pit bull with make-up." They got in some great lines and put the crowd in a frenzy. I bet if you polled Republicans right now more of them would support Palin than McCain.
But do they think this is going to win it for them in a year of economic downturn and Democratic ascendancy? More tax cuts and foreign policy belligerence? More oil company populism? The base rallying strategy, again? I’m not sure what else they’ve got in their quiver, but some part of me thought they’d try something new. Seems not. It’s going to be a long, ugly 60 days.