With all the attention last week focused on the vice presidential debate, it was easy to overlook what may have been the biggest story of the week: John McCain’s withdrawal from the key state of Michigan. The fact that the news broke literaly on the day of the Biden-Palin debate was obviously not a coincidence, but an effort to bury, or at least put some dirt, on top of the story. Even so, it got atention, deservedly so. In the long run, it may count for more than the debate that was supposed to overshadow it.
It is, of course, true that Michigan has gone Democratic in the last four elections. But it’s been close, especially in the last two. What’s more, Michigan was not an Obama stronghold. Hillary won it handlily in the contest that wasn’t; McCain himself won it in 2000, even as Bush was steaming toward the nomination.
Michigan is full of the sort of lunch bucket white Democrats who started off this summer with more questions than affection for Barack Obama. It is the home, historically and ideologically, of the so-called Reagan Democrats. It represents precisely the sort of sate that a victorious McCain would have liked to win, or at least force Obama to spend money to beat him there. Now, Michigan voters are likely to see about as much campaign activity as we do here in California, which is a sign of Obama’s growing strength and McCain’s weakening position.
Conceding Michigan may well make sense for McCain given the most recent polls, showing him falling further and further behind, and the reality that presidential politics, particularly when things are looking down, is a zero sum game in which a shrinking pie must be divided with ever greater precision. There are places where McCain is closer; states where he has a better chance of winning than Michigan. And a contest in Michigan means spending less in Ohio and Florida, and the remaining “battleground” states.
But make no mistake. Leaving a battleground state is a sign of weakness. Weakness in presidential politics begets more weakness. It hurts fundraising. It undermines confidence in the campaign. It ups the pressure on the candidate to take risks which are called that because they usually carry at least as big a downside potential as an upside risk.
Of course, the obvious reason that Michigan turned on McCain is that the economy devloved into a crisis, and it’s hard to argue that the party that’s been in charge for the last eight years and would claim credit for peace and prosperity is not to blame when it has produced neither. It is particularly hard when what has been the mantra of the Republican party for the past two plus decades – smaller government, less regulation, more freedom for free markets – is so closely tied to everything that’s gone wrong. Who let what Palin called those “predator” lenders out of their cages, free from any restraints? And, more to the point, how do you argue that the answer on which Republicans have built their past successes, is the solution when it so clearly seems to be part of the problem instead?
Indeed, what was most striking about Thursday’s vice presidential debate was not that Palin didn’t totally embarrass herself (she would have to be an idiot to do that after being locked up in debate prep for a week, not to mention having been forced to confront what letting Palin be Palin looked like night after night on the CBS News) or that Joe Biden managed to avoid patronizing either his opponent or the moderator (how much do you think that was drilled into his head), but how flat Palin’s repeated efforts to invoke solid-gold Reagan gems fell in 2008.
It’s too easy to say that Palin is no Ronald Reagan. Sure, Reagan delivered his lines better; he was an actor, after all, not to mention a two term governor of California, which is certainly better preparation for the national stage than two years in Juneau. But I don’t think Reagan himself could make smaller government and freer markets sell amid the collapse of the unregulated, too free banking system that Americans are grudgingly being forced to bailout.
The experiment with less government has produced more government than Reagan ever dreamt of; the bail out bill is definitely not one for the Gipper. It wasn’t so much that Palin’s efforts to channel Ronald Reagan were forced or rehearsed; it’s that what came out sounded painfully stale, and as much as she claimed to “get it,” what she said suggested just the opposite.
Republicans need a new approach, a new set of talking points, new rules of engagement, to address the mess that deregulation and less government has produced in real life, and Sarah Palin – and her partner, John McCain – have yet to articulate that approach.
In explaining her disastrous performace with Katie Couric, Governor Palin said she found Couric – or at least her questions – “annoying.” Who was Couric to ask the Vice Presidential nominee to name a Supreme Court opinion other than Roe (she couldn’t), or to list what newspapers she read (not even the Washington Times or the Wall Street Journal), to inquire about why Russia’s proximity to Alaska gave her foreign policy experience, much less to ask her opinion on the bailout package. As Palin told FOX News, "It's like, man, no matter what you say, you are going to get clobbered. If you choose to answer a question, you are going to get clobbered on the answer. If you choose to try to pivot and go to another subject that you believe that Americans want to hear about, you get clobbered for that, too."
The reason Sarah Palin got clobbered was not because her answers were “wrong” but because she didn’t have them, and her inability to answer such straightforward questions raises serious questions about her competence for high office. What she wanted to do was just attack Barack Obama: “I wanted to talk about his proposal to increase government spending by another trillion dollars. Some of his comments that he's made about the war, that I think may, in my world, disqualify someone from consideration as the next commander in chief. Some of the comments that he has made about Afghanistan — what we are doing there, supposedly just air raiding villages and killing civilians. That's reckless. I want to talk about things like that. So I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that's also an indication of being outside the Washington elite, outside of the media elite also.”
This is not about the “media elite.” It is about minimum standards for high office. What Sarah Palin needs to apologize for is not her annoyance, but her ignorance, not for embarrassing herself with Couric, which she did, but for embarrassing all of the women who looked to her as a symbol of the competence and qualifications women can bring to high office. If she did not always answer the questions that were asked on Thursday night, at least her avoidance was not as obvious as it was with Couric. The Republicans may have been complaining about moderator Gwen Ifill on the eve of the debate, but in its aftermath, they should be thanking her for going easy on the candidate who ignored her questions.
But at the end of the day, if Palin cannot win this election for McCain – and that was certainly his hope when he picked her – she will also not be responsible for their defeat, which is where they are headed now. Michigan isn’t her fault; she didn’t create the mess that is forcing Michigan voters, some of them reluctantly, to conclude that they cannot vote Republican this times Reagan Democrats are still Democrats when Reagan’s answers, no matter how enthusiastically or genuinely they are invoked, no longer ring true.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.