In the Arena

The Republicans Tonight

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As I predicted earlier today, Sarah Palin did just fine. In fact, she delivered a brilliant speech. It was a classic Republican speech–written by Matthew Scully of the Bush speechwriting shop–chock full of conservative populism, a cultural “torpedo” as Chris Mathews is saying as I write this, aimed directly at Barack and Michelle Obama. She was far more effective, using fewer words than the over-the-top Rudy Giuliani, in tearing down the Obama candidacy. There was not much substance–issues don’t matter, remember?–and her description of Obama’s policies, particularly his tax policies, was quite inaccurate.

But that hardly matters. Palin established herself as a major-league performer, a very effective messenger for the perennial Republican themes of low taxes and strong defense. And a new theme–government reform–that changes the terrain of the election and will have to be forcefully countered by the Democrats. Obama will have to be every bit as sharp–and down to earth–as he was in his speech last week as this goes forward.

Last week, when Bill Clinton began to speak, I thought: this turns this lugubrious convention around. I thought the same as Palin spoke tonight. John McCain, not nearly the speaker that Palin seems to be, has a tough act to follow tomorrow night.

A few minutes later: The speech also very effectively steered Palin away from her extremist views on social issues…and from her differences from McCain on almost every issue–global warming, tax increases, pork–except abortion. It will, obviously, be crucial for Obama and Biden to make clear the inaccuracies in her speech–and her relentless mischaracterizations of Obama’s positions, especially taxes.

The more I think about it, Palin’s was an authentic, sarcastic, white working-class voice–absent the economic pain at large in the country, the fact that median families have lost $2000 in disposable income during the Bush presidency. The Democrats are betting that the pain will trump the sarcasm this year; the media reaction you’re seeing, including my own, comes from the knowledge that sarcasm has trumped pain so often in recent history. The question remains the one Obama raised last week: will this be a big election or a small one?