Tonight’s speech at the Republican National Convention by vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is probably the most important convention speech in memory by a vice presidential candidate. Gov. Palin made a smashingly good impression with her initial appearance on Friday, but her relative inexperience combined with a ferocious left-wing/media assault on her and her family has left a lot of the public up in the air as to what to make of her. Obviously, she’s enormously popular with Republican activists and hated by the cultural Left, and there is copious evidence that people in general and women in particular are upset at how she has been treated over the past several days (note: when Obama and his allies are turning off the likes of Lindsay Lohan, they are really playing with fire), but sympathy is one thing, and respect is entirely another. Tonight’s audience will be looking to Gov. Palin to show them why they should respect her.
With that in mind, a few thoughts about what tonight’s speech should look like. Gov. Palin has a lot of work to do to close the sale with voters who only first met her five days ago, whether they like her or not, and it’s not going to happen all in one speech. It’s important for a speech not to try to do too many things, lest it fail to accomplish any of them. For example, Barack Obama’s race speech back in the spring was a smashing success, at least temporarily, because it had just two goals: redirect attention away from Rev. Wright, and let Obama speak movingly about a subject he cares deeply about. By contrast, Obama’s convention speech really was not that impressive – Obama was trying to give out some of his patented rhetoric without looking too grandiose, he was trying to reassure people on national security, taxes and social issues, he was trying to prove he could get specific, he was trying to mend fences with Hillaryites…too many goals for one speech. Gov. Palin needs to focus on a few achievable goals.
1. Go light on the ‘girl power’ stuff. The key sound bites from her Friday speech, which most people who would be watching tonight have already seen on the news, were about the historic nature of her candidacy as a woman. That doesn’t need to be repeated at any length. Palin’s mere presence is enough to remind people of that history.
2. Go light on the mooses. It’s hard for any politician to establish a clear identity with the public, let alone in less than a week, but the media blitz around Palin has already hammered home the basic nutshell: mother of five, small town girl, “hockey mom,” pro-life and really means it, pro-gun, shoots moose. That’s actually quite a lot of brand identity already built in, and some of it can be reinforced by her introduction. Gov. Palin doesn’t need to sell people on why they should like a woman with that background (many will, some won’t); she needs to sell them on why they should believe that a likeable, relatable woman is also ready to be the Vice President and, if necessary, the Commander-in-Chief.
3. Guns and abortion are Obama’s problem. Relatedly, Palin’s “pro-life, pro-gun” credibility is not going to be questioned – she needs to expand that issue profile beyond social issues, not worry about proving her bona fides. If she does get into issues like abortion and guns, it should only be to attack Obama’s extremism on those issues. (I had assumed before the Palin nomination and the hurricane-shortened convention that Mike Huckabee would give the speech that tears into Obama’s positions on those issues, but it is unclear now if Huck will even get his speech shown by the cable networks).
4. Stick to the broad themes on foreign policy. Gov. Palin won’t prove herself an expert on national security in one prepared speech and shouldn’t try. Leave the thorny issues like South Ossetia, Waziristan, Iran’s nuclear program and the future of the Atlantic alliance to McCain, who has built decades of credibility on them. Gov. Palin can start the process of reassuring Republicans on her national security credibility by hitting a few marks on the most familiar questions – 9/11, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan – and leave for later the process of fleshing out her views.
5. Sell her record as Governor. Traditionally, Governors, whatever their foreign policy experience or lack thereof, have sold themselves to the public as serious people by running on their record of accomplishment and showing how they have grappled with the issues that have come accross their desks. In Gov. Palin’s case that means a heavy focus on energy policy, on which she is legitimately an expert from her time both as Governor and on the Oil and Gas Commission, and on battling corruption and wasteful spending. The Washington Post notes that “Palin is likely to emphasize her areas of policy expertise — particularly energy and political reform — rather than focusing on her biography or gender,” and that’s what it needs to be about. If Palin can convince voters that she is 100% ready on day one to deal with pocketbook issues, she is halfway home.
6. Show some steel. A convention speech is not the time or place to waste time rebutting the other side’s attacks, whether personal or poilitical. Gov. Palin can probably best deal with the personal stuff by sitting down with someone like Barbara Walters or even Oprah (anybody appropriate to the task is in the tank for Obama, so why not someone who is open about it?). But the message does need to be sent in more general terms that she is accustomed to the brickbats that come with standing up to the establishment, that she can – in Harry Truman’s words – take the heat in the kitchen, and that no matter what gets thrown at her, she won’t back off or back down and will keep doing the people’s business. Plus, a few well-timed Churchillian lines of that nature, ideally as the conclusion of the speech, will absolutely bring down the house in a convention packed with delegates who are just dying to put on a rousing show of support for a woman most Republicans feel is being unfairly slimed by a media that’s been all too reluctant to do the same thing to the other side’s presidential nominee.
That is her mission tonight.