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Palin Missed Her Chance

All right: Sarah Palin’s speech was well-delivered, charming, an opening-night hit. The anchors and pundits now analyzing it on CNN are falling all over themselves: “I think Republicans have to be thrilled with what happened here tonight—the most macho speech of the night was delivered by a woman,” Republican consultant Alex Castellanos marveled. But this all had been a foregone conclusion. People have questioned her experience and her background; nobody really questioned whether she could give a good speech, especially after her successful rollout address last Friday. Tonight, diminished expectations combined with Palin’s known-to-be-remarkable charisma made for the speech-making equivalent of putting a champ bowler two feet in front of a set of plastic duckpins.

She did make an audacious choice in the speech: to double down on exactly what critics have attacked her on, her main source of executive experience--serving as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska--and her quirkily provincial, small-town background and family. “From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That's how it is with us,” she chuckled. She referred to herself a “gal.” “I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA,” she explained. Message: “Way-ell, I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment!” (She amped up the twang tonight too, for maximum authentic-America effect.)

As for running Wasilla, she gestured towards an argument Peggy Noonan floated this morning: “But executives, even of small towns, run something,” Noonan explained. “[T]here are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. … We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos." Being the mayor of a small town, this brazen theory goes, actually better prepares you to be President than something more hoity-toity, like being a U.S. Senator.

Palin pointed to Harry Truman, who had small-town experience growing up in Independence, Missouri. Well, I don’t mean to be credentialist, but Harry Truman also served heroically in World War One and was a U.S. Senator and the nationally-known head of the Truman Committee before becoming FDR’s running mate. He took a long road from his small town to the vice presidency—a lot longer than Sarah Palin’s.

That’s the problem with the positive case Palin made for herself, with its emphasis on all that small-town stuff: It convinced me that she makes a good PTA mom, that she may make a fine mayor, that she hasn’t totally bombed as the essentially brand-new governor of the third-least-populous state in the Union, even that I might like to have a beer with her, or a glass of fermented whale milk or whatever one drinks with mooseburgers. But just because we’re a nation of a hundred thousand Wasillas doesn’t mean all those hundred thousand mayors ought to be in the White House. Tonight, she sounded for all the world like an unusually sharp version of those “regular people” they drag onstage at conventions to tell their stories in the off-primetime hours.

There was a way she could have made her small-town story more pointed, twisted it more effectively to her advantage: Contrast it more personally with Obama’s sojourning, placeless, hometown-less quality, his cool, hard-to-penetrate personality; in other words, play on people’s vague sense that Obama somehow isn’t of them and doesn’t really know them. That’s an impression of Obama found more widely than only among closet racists, and she could have deftly painted that portrait of him, such a contrasting image to her own, and made a bigger case about why this moment in history calls for, yes, as he puts it, judgment—but a small-town, pragmatic kind of judgment more attuned to ameliorating the kind of economic hardships people face every day than to reversing great deficits in national “hope.” But she didn’t do that. She got rough with Obama, but her slicing-and-dicing had a fuzzy lack of focus, a gripe of Noam’s about the convention as a whole. Rudy was better at painting a coherent negative picture.

She was likeable enough, to borrow a line of Obama’s. Maybe even lovable. But I don’t think she neutered the argument that she’s not ready, that her reformist record isn’t what she claims it is, that she was a cynical pick, or that she—as a poll released today found that a big majority of likely women voters believe—undermines McCain’s claim to “experience.” I don’t think she did much more than anybody thought she would do.

And her case for John McCain? Let’s just say I hope he has a better one for himself in store for tomorrow night. Extremely heavy on the POW material, it sounded less like an argument for a presidential nominee and more like the introduction to a Lifetime Achievement Award.

--Eve Fairbanks

Related: More from TNR on Sarah Palin's Big Convention Speech