Astonishing. It was a fine convention speech—but, reading the text, no better than very good. What was just sensational, far exceeding my expectations, was the delivery. After the thrashing she has received from press and television in the past few days, knowing what was at stake for the party and for John McCain as she stood at the podium, with a good part of the nation watching and waiting for her to trip, her composure and self-assurance were simply amazing. Who could fail to be moved by this? And it was even more impressive than it looked, because the waves of adulation from the audience kept interrupting her momentum: they did not know it, but at times the audience was making it harder for her. Yet she never looked hesitant or thrown. She paused when she had to and controlled the timing. She actually seemed comfortable. If ever there were a political natural, we saw one tonight.
It was not a safe speech, though at the beginning, when she was talking mainly about McCain, I thought it was going to be. She had a pair of difficult acts to follow, because both Mike Huckabee and (especially) Rudi Giuliani gave terrific barnstorming speeches before she came on. (Let‘s not dwell on Mitt Romney’s bizarre contribution.) She not only touched on her own biography, in ways sure to delight small-town Americans across the land, she also asserted her command, as the governor of an oil-producing state, of the energy debate. Had Democrats forgotten that this is a key issue in the election, and one on which they are trailing the Republicans in public opinion?
I was surprised that she dared to attack Obama-Biden on national security and foreign policy, where her credentials are weak: here she was saying, I’m not afraid of you. In fronting her own executive experience, comparing it favorably (and not without justification) with Obama’s, she dared to mock the Democratic nominee. That too was a risk, because mockery easily backfires—ask the Democrats about that tonight—and it paid off. All the barbs—“he has written two memoirs but not one piece of legislation,” and so on—went home.
Well, the Democrats have a problem. They had a few days of calling her a clueless redneck, a stewardess, a nonentity, and she has hurled that back in their bleeding gums. (If I were Joe Biden, I’d start practising for October 2nd right now.) Even before tonight’s speech, they had backed off the “no experience” strategy, because (as the Republicans intended) that was sending shrapnel in Obama’s direction. Their line right now is their default mode, that McCain-Palin is four more years of George Bush. But this too is a completely untenable strategy, since the Republican ticket now looks stunningly fresh to voters, as fresh in fact as Obama-Biden. Where they will have to end up is obvious: McCain-Palin is an extreme right-wing ticket. It is a team that will prosecute the culture war against all that is decent and civilized in the United States: that must be the line.
Aside from further surprises in her biography, this—not her supposed inexperience—is the vulnerability that Palin has brought to the McCain candidacy. We need to hear her questioned on those issues. How unbending a social conservative is she? So much as to frighten the independents McCain needs? McCain is not a culture warrior. That is not the campaign he wanted to fight. At the moment, however, this factor seems massively outweighed in electoral terms by the excitement she has brought to the campaign. The party cannot believe its luck. They want to win again, and suddenly they think they can.
What one next wants to know is how Americans at large react to what they saw tonight. I will be surprised if they were not very impressed.
Update: CNN on why the speech was a problem for McCain: “Well, he has to speak tomorrow night, and as we know, he is no governor of Alaska.” Flexibility you can believe in from the best political team on television.