The selection of gun-shooting, anti-abortion, creationist, doctrinaire conservative Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee has finally got the GOP’s conservative base excited. The right-wing talk-show hosts and religious leaders who had been lukewarm over McCain — and fearful that he really might put Senator Joe Lieberman on the ticket — are beside themselves with glee.
Once again, as in 2000 and 2004, the Republican base will get fired up for November. Conservative religious groups will distribute fliers about abortion, homosexuals, and atheism. Evangelical churches will run busses to the polling places. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will warn, hour after hour, of the impending socialistic state of Barack Obama, and the inevitable nuclear attack on American soil.
Palin is part of McCain’s attempt to reclaim the Republican advantage in party-base enthusiasm, an edge which arguably won the past two presidential elections for the GOP. This year, that advantage was seen as heavily favoring the Democrats.
But not only has McCain started to energize his conservatives, fervor was also waning in recent weeks among Democrats, due to in-fighting, uncertainty, and tightening poll numbers — to the point that Democrats arriving in Denver this past week for their national convention seemed surprisingly nervous about the election, and noticeably cautious in their enthusiasm.
Like Red Sox fans in the 86 years of darkness, Democratic insiders bear the scars of past broken hearts, from times when they previously let themselves believe that their time had come — only to see victory elude them like a ground ball between the legs of Al Gore and John Kerry.
To mix Red Sox metaphors, it is as though they have come to expect that Karl Rove lurks in the batter’s box like Bucky Dent, always ready to drive one over the Green Monster and beat them in the end.
Obama needs his base — the delegates and party activists in Denver — to believe again that this is, really, the year his party’s dreams will come to fruition. He needs them to believe, so that they will be passionate speakers on his behalf back in their home states; so that they will fill his coffers with money; so that they will spend endless hours registering voters, making phone calls, and doing all the grunt work of the national campaign — in short, so that the enthusiasm gap this time works in the Democrats’ favor.
So, while the convention was on one level meant to sell a likable Obama to the national audience, on another level it was meant to whip the Democrats inside the convention hall into a frenzy that would stand up to the inevitable enthusiasm of the Republicans.
These should be heady times for Democrats. Their party is on the rise, while their opponents are in the national doghouse. Most analysts believe Democrats are just a few months away from holding not just the Oval Office (their presidential candidate has led in almost every national poll taken since the two 2008 major-party nominees have been known), but a minimum of 55 percent of positions in the US Senate, US House, and governorships, as well. Among the general populace, voters are now far more likely to register and self-identify as Democrat than Republican, and to prefer that Democrats control government. On almost all the major issues of the day — the economy, Iraq, health care — a solid majority of Americans favors Democratic positions over Republican ones.
But several factors were clouding the mood of Democrats as they arrived in Denver. Most important, national polls showed a narrowing of the race to a virtual dead heat between Obama and McCain. While Obama took some time off to prepare for the convention and the final two-month sprint to the November election, McCain aggressively attacked the Illinois senator.
Of secondary, and related, importance was the much-publicized reluctance of some Hillary Clinton voters to line up behind Obama, allegedly enflamed by the previous week’s announcement of Delaware senator Joe Biden as the vice-presidential nominee.
Republicans gladly pumped up this story line at the start of the week. Monday morning, the Republican National Committee released a Web video in which a former Clinton delegate urged others to join her in backing McCain; that evening, the RNC hosted a “Happy Hour for Hillary” party at a downtown Denver nightclub. The media predictably lapped it up; they are desperate for anything with the whiff of controversy or unpredictability at these scripted conventions.
The Clinton clash had some truth to it, as evidenced by the scramble to resolve the roll-call protocol for Wednesday — which was not fully settled until that afternoon, causing considerable last-minute juggling of the schedule. The first days were full of Clinton-Obama tensions: from Clinton supporter (and one-time Obama belittler) Sal DiMasi, Speaker of the Massachusetts House, giving an impassioned plea to unite behind Barack at a Monday-night reception, to die-hards on both sides conspiratorially trying to pry information out of third parties (including reporters) about the other sides’ conversations.