HBO’s controversial movie adaptation of the book “Game Change” aired this weekend. The book focused on the decision by the campaign of John McCain to select Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. The “controversy” was generated, and foolishly fed by Palin and her allies, by complaints about whether or not the movie accurately portrayed Palin’s frequent meltdowns during her two and one-half months in the national spotlight.
I do not know if Palin ever actually stood in a stairwell, arguing with Nicole Wallace on her cell phone before throwing the device against the wall and screaming that she was “ruined.” But, the basic narrative of the script was undoubtedly accurate and the filmmakers interspersed clips of news coverage of Palin from that time to make the point. When Fareed Zakaria looks into the camera and suggests that Palin’s problem was not that she couldn’t provide answers to questions but that she clearly did not understand the questions, that was not acting. That was a contemporaneous clip. And, that was the problem with Palin.
She really did not know why Korea was divided into two countries. She really did not know what the Federal Reserve was or how it worked. She really could not explain why the government intervention in the financial sector was necessary or the nature of the threat posed by Putin. As one of the news commentators shown in the movie says, it is true that most people in America may not know such things, but most people are not running to be Vice President of the United States.
But, what scared me from the movie, and what I hope scared you, was not how little Palin knew, but how she was able to nonetheless survive politically. Again, we do not know how accurate the movie is about Palin’s preparation for the debate with Joe Biden. But, we can recall that Palin did very well during the debate. This tells us something about the limited value of a debate: A candidate can memorize forty-five minutes worth of answers, learn how to pivot from a difficult question back to an issue they feel comfortable with and, voila, it’s a win. Mind you, I don’t think a presidential candidate could get away with it as easily: The process is longer, there are more debates, etc. Michele Bachmann, after all, could not survive her evident lack of knowledge on many issues. A candidate needs more than cue cards.
The other thing that came through in the movie that rings very true is the decency of John McCain who refused to go after Rev. Jeremiah Wright and who, in one of the campaign’s most famous moments, took the microphone away from a woman who had just said Barack Obama was an Arab and McCain explained that was not true, that Obama was an American, and that they simply disagreed on the issues. In several scenes in the movie, you see McCain giving a speech and becoming disconcerted as the anger of the crowd, specifically the outburst against Obama – “He’s a socialist! He’s a terrorist! He’s a Muslim!” That anger is palpable in the penultimate scene of the movie, when McCain gives his concession speech. McCain, Steve Schmidt, Wallace, all look alarmed when the crowd boos the name of the newly elected President and subsequently breaks into a chant: “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!”
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Here may be the key difference between the two parties today. The Republican campaign strategists and political leaders have created a monster, their own base, and they are now reaping the whirlwind. From Nixon’s southern strategy through Jesse Helms’ “white hand” ad through Tom Tancredo’s anti-immigrant rants, they have cultivated what McCain in the movie describes as the “ugly side of populism.” McCain himself felt the brunt of that ugliness in 2000 when the campaign of George W. Bush ran push polls in South Carolina suggesting that McCain had a black child out of wedlock, which was one way to describe the fact that McCain and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi girl. Now, however, that fired-up base is in danger of taking over the party. Under the banner of the Tea Party, all that populist anger, some of it, but not all, rooted in racial fears to be sure, has come to the fore and made life miserable for Speaker John Boehner and Gov. Romney. The lesson: All the energy in the GOP today is moving in a centripetal fashion, towards a radicalized center.
The Democrats have something of the opposite problem. The political leadership of the Democratic Party is too beholden to inside the Beltway interest groups who do not necessarily represent the core issues that concern the Democratic base. At the core of the Democratic Party is a commitment to using the power of government to restrain the power of the moneyed interest on behalf of the common good and the interests of those who are not moneyed. That is the core. But, Democratic politicians are constantly pulled away from that core to focus on lifestyle issues, and environmental issues, and shutting Guantanamo, and various and sundry other concerns, any one of which may be of import, but which do not unite blue collar, working class voters with liberal Democrats. All the juice within the Democratic Party continues to move in a centrifugal manner, away from a centrist center towards discrete and sometimes extreme positions on peripheral issues.
If I were a Republican, I would be very concerned that none of the candidates might garner the requisite 1,144 votes needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot. The prospect of Sarah Palin throwing her hat into the ring at the last minute is a frightening scenario not least because the base loves her and might be swayed to see in her a savior of their party. It would be one thing is Ms. Palin has spent the last years actually disciplining herself and learning about the world and the issues that face the nation, instead of doing a reality show about the natural beauty of Alaska.
In the end, however, the value of “Game Change” is that it shows how campaigns function today, in which strategists and operatives, not candidates, are making the key decisions. Candidates become mere mouthpieces and fundraisers for the campaign. They are not expected to know much about anything except what is needed to get through an interview with Katie Couric. They prep for debates more than they prep for office. This is why our much-bemoaned, overly long campaign season is essential. Because, at the end of the day, we do not elect a platform, we elect a person. And, we need to know that a candidate has the gumption to be able to stand up to the press corps before we give them the keys to the White House and hope they know how to stand up to Putin. It is frightening to think how close Palin came to the high office she sought. It is frightening, too, to think that our modern campaigns make such a thing possible. None of us should entertain nostalgia for the days of the smoke-filled backrooms where a good ole boy network made decision of consequence of the entire nation. But, the last brokered convention produced Adlai Stevenson, and a brokered GOP convention this year might turn to Sarah Palin. Hard not to think there has been a decline.