ERIE, Pennsylvania—It was a republican crowd at the Erie Bayfront Convention Center last Thursday, alright, but it was not the only reason they were screaming for Sarah Palin.
I’ve covered campaign rallies in the Philippines, where pretty or charming politicians are mobbed like movie stars. I’ve heard eloquent American candidates getting interrupted several times during their speeches by spontaneous applause from an audience suddenly inspired (this rarely happens in the Philippines).
I was witnessing a combination of those as Palin, sleek and smart in her black suit and pencil cut skirt, emerged from the backstage. Forceful and emphatic in her speech, she instantly connected to her placard-bearing, pompom-waving audience. They’d been waiting to be awed by her.
“Sarah! Sarah!” they called on her as she went down the stage after her speech, toward the crowd, to sign t-shirts, posters, and books being shoved past her security agents.
There was adulation in the placards: “Super Sarah.” “Erie loves Palin.” “Sarah Smile.” “PA 4 Palin.” “Read my lipstick…No new taxes” (in reference to Palin’s joke earlier in the campaign that the only difference between a hockey mom like her and a pit bull was lipstick”).
It hit me: Those 6,000 people were not just Republican Party loyalists, they were the vice presidential candidate’s fans.
It was exactly two months since she was announced as a surprise VP bet of John McCain—and five days before election day—and the previously unknown governor of Alaska was exuding the confidence of a veteran in national politics. She’s a quick study, as McCain has said.
Forget about her relative unpreparedness for the job (many Americans aren’t making an issue about Obama’s lack of experience either), Palin was magnetic. Her supporters were enthusiastic. I had never been in a hall so highly charged for a full hour in my years of covering campaigns. Think Erap in 1998—and more.
Days before this encounter with Palin, a colleague asked me how most Filipinos thought of her. I said they would love somebody like her.
Try combining Joseph Estrada’s popularity, Vilma Santos’s a la Sister Stella L speech at rallies, and Loren Legarda’s “Princess Diana incarnate” projection (remember that 1998 press release?) all coming out naturally. And then put in the general public sympathy for candidates who are subject to media’s intellectual snobbery. You’d have a new darling in the likes of Sarah Palin.
This is why I think the Democrats are afraid of Palin becoming more popular than she already is. McCain may be a hardsell and is easy for Obama to trounce in terms of charisma. But when it’s mom-next-door Palin taking potshots at Obama, a family-oriented, conservative community like Erie might just listen.
It was like hearing the woman president of a homeowners association tell her fellow homemakers: “Our agenda will help your households because we will stamp out corruption on Wall Street,” referring to the mortgage scam that has led to the foreclosure crisis in the US.
Or telling the businessman-fathers in her closely-knit community: “Barack Obama is going to take your earnings and spread them to other people according his government’s priorities…. You shouldn’t be working for your government, your government should be working for you.”
Or telling the easily-swayed young people: “Rousing speeches can fill a stadium, but they cannot keep our country safe… For a moment, he (Obama) inspires with his words. John McCain has inspired a lifetime with his deeds.”
Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes, has gone for Democratic candidates for decades. However, developments that left communities here struggling economically might just tilt the balance toward a Republican.
That’s why it’s one of the battleground states that candidates and their substitute campaigners are storming in the last few days of the campaign. That’s why the Republicans sent Palin here. That’s why former President Bill Clinton was in another end of this state to campaign for Obama a day before Palin came.
Pennsylvania’s main industry, manufacturing, is labor-heavy and expectedly has strong labor unions. However, many manufacturing plants have closed down, and unions here and across America have seen their membership drop dramatically.
So in communities in the so-called rustbelt area—closed factories left to rust—that are hoping for industrial revival, there’s considerable worry over Obama’s promise to increase taxes on big earners, make union organizing so much easier it will practically hostage their companies, and renegotiate free trade agreements with other countries to keep jobs in the US.
In closed-shop states like Pennsylvania, companies are prevented from hiring non-union workers. But union workers bound themselves to strict job descriptions, refusing to learn new skills or take on jobs other than what their titles say. Companies, on the other hand, need multi-tasking, trainable, and flexible workers to make operations efficient and keep up with the foreign competition brought on by globalization.
We talked to executives and CEOs of the remaining manufacturers and exporters, who are naturally the biggest job-providers in Erie. They didn’t say whom they would vote for, but it could be gleaned from their statements that it’s definitely not Obama.
“When you extract from the wealth creators and give it to the non-producers, you are poisoning your own economy,” said Ralph Pontillo, president of the Manufacturer & Business Association of Northwestern Pennsylvania.
Brett BeGole, general manager for global locomotive operations of GE Transportation, suggested that people should “sift through the rhetoric” of candidates who promise to change the current trade agreement with other countries to bring the jobs back to America. “This is the first time in a downturn that we are not laying off people…. We export 280 locomotives a year. I don’t think those are numbers that you would want to screw up.”
Scott Eighmy is CEO of American Turned Products, a precision machining company that’s union-free. He said that when the government increase taxes, as Obama proposes to do, it restricts consumer spending, and consequently makes the economy shrink.
He doesn’t approve of Obama’s wealth distribution proposition. “We’re talking about socialism and Marxism, and this is not what this country was founded on.”
Palin’s anti-wealth distribution line in her speech Thursday must have resonated among these job-providers in Erie. “Barack Obama is for bigger government and higher taxes. He calls it spreading the wealth. [His running mate] Joe Biden calls it patriotism. To Joe the Plumber in Ohio, it sounds more like socialism. And this is not the time to experiment with socialism.”
And this is not the time for Democratic operators to let their guard down.
When Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate on August 29, she was believed to have energized the socially conservative Republican base that was initially lukewarm toward McCain. She caused some Republicans to fret, too, because they had better candidates in mind.
Immediately, Palin was besieged, on one side, by disgruntled Republicans who grumble anonymously in the media (and, not unlikely, sabotaging her campaign), and, on the other, by Democrats who don’t want Palin to inspire a cult of personality like Obama has.
I’ve begun to suspect that—as in any campaign—the controversies that broke about Palin one after another since she was nominated were sort of programmed.
Palin was already being investigated for allegedly using her influence to have her estranged brother in law fired from the police service before she was picked as Republican VP bet. However, the probe took a partisan turn when Hollis French, the Democrat state legislator appointed by the Alaska council to head the investigation, turned out to be an avid Obama supporter, with his name listed on Obama’s campaign website no less.
It didn’t help douse suspicions of conflict of interest when French told the media: “If they (Republicans) had done their job, they never would have picked her. Now they may have to deal with an October surprise.” While the probe had yet to be completed, he already insinuated that the final report would be “damaging” and would be released four days before election day.
This should remind Filipinos of three lawyers filing a disqualification case against Fernando Poe Jr., President Arroyo’s strongest rival in the 2004 presidential race, in the thick of the campaign, on the grounds that he’s not a natural-born citizen. The Supreme Court dismissed the case, but it did disrupt the opposition’s campaign. (One of the petitioners, Zoilo Velez, was later promoted by President Arroyo to Court of Appeals justice.)
Then the necessary revelation that her unwed teenage daughter is pregnant. It had to be announced at one point in the campaign, I believe, but why just a few days after the Republican National Convention where Palin debuted? To dampen the party momentum? Who gave her that advice?
Back in the Philippines, I remember only one instance that a presidential campaign manager advised the candidate to voluntarily reveal domestic matters supposedly to preempt the other camp’s “expose” on it. Tito Sotto told Fernando Poe Jr. to reveal what had otherwise been a well-kept secret that he had fathered children with other women. Well, we all know how Sotto sabotaged FPJ’s campaign; and we all know into whose ship Sotto immediately jumped after that campaign—to President Arroyo’s.
They’re getting pettier here. Then came the hullabaloo about the Republican campaign purchasing US$150,000 worth of clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus for Palin and her family for the two months that they had been making the rounds of rallies.
Certainly not the ordinary “hockey mom” she portrays herself to be, critics said.
What’s wrong with these Americans? Don’t they save up—or go on credit—for pricey clothes when they have important events to attend? And don’t their employers sometimes shoulder those expenses so they could represent their companies better? Say they would do that every day for two months, not just once or twice a year. That, in my mind, is what the party was doing for Palin.
Why are the Americans—is it really the women on the street or just the selective media?—not being equally fussy about Michelle Obama’s or Cindy McCain’s designer clothes?
They should loosen up. Filipinos have forgiven Imelda Marcos for her shoes; we’re even buying from her jewelry line. Our President is not exactly popular among the masses, but we certainly don’t mind her retaining a fashion consultant and being an Inno Sotto, JC Buendia, Ito Curata, and Gabby Panlilio regular. Wait till these Americans hear of our Gretchen Barretto. They’d think their Sarah Palin is one disadvantaged ex-beauty queen.
Not surprisingly, the most sane report I came across about the wardrobe issue was one that asked critics, “Leave Sarah Palin’s clothes alone.” Rochelle Riley, in her Free Press column of October 29, pointed out that “clothing is a part of the political packaging of candidates.” She said:
“With a week to go before the election, if I hear one more person whine about Sarah Palin’s clothes, I’m going to scream. The Alaska governor was picked from near anonymity in the capital of cold and asked to become the most famous woman in the world. Did we really expect that she wouldn’t get new clothes? Even Cinderella got a gown and shoes….
“So what if the RNC spent $150,000 on clothes? If McCain had asked me to be his vice presidential candidate…[I] would have demanded new clothes. After all, if you are expected to appear before millions of people and talk about the issues, you don’t want someone focused on a hole in your jacket lapel or a hanging hem.”
Then there’s the report, almost at the same time as the pricey clothes thing, about Palin bringing her children along when she attends meetings and conferences and charging their expenses to the Alaska government.
“In all, Palin has charged the state $21,012 for her three daughters’ 64 one-way and 12 round-trip commercial flights since she took office in December 2006. She also has charged the state for hotel rooms for the girls.” The documents for these expenses, the report said, were later amended to specify that the daughters were on official business with their mother.
No question that it was a legitimate story, and well-documented at that. But where are these kinds of investigative reports on the other major candidates?
There was that kind of dilemma in the newsroom where I worked in 1998. There were two of us covering Joe de Venecia’s presidential campaign, and we were stumbling on stories upon stories about the things that were going wrong in his campaign, and we reported them.
The paper, however, was perceived by De Venecia’s party as treating his rival Joseph Estrada with kids’ gloves. Why were there no investigative reports on Estrada? The reporters covering Estrada, it turned, were being threatened at the Estrada camp of being denied access to the celebrity candidate if they came up with just a single negative story. So even that threat was not reported on.
The New Yorker recently came out with an article on how Palin was picked as McCain’s running mate. It said that she had influential people in Washington lobby for her. These influential people were less than 10 journalists whom she entertained in the governor’s house once when they happened to be in Alaska (read: they didn’t come to Alaska specifically to visit her), and a media relations firm she hired to promote her natural energy program.
I think this is a stretch too far. Do we honestly think in the Philippines that if a group of columnists get entertained once by, say, Grace Padaca and they write favorably about her, Gabby Claudio would nominate her as vice presidential candidate of Lakas in 2010? I don’t think so.
Democrat Mark Penn, a strategist for the Clinton couple, told CBS News that the media is treading “very dangerous ground” in being particularly tough on Palin. “I think that when you see them going through every single expense report that Governor Palin ever filed…. The media is doing the kinds of stories on Palin that they're not doing on the other candidates. And that's going to subject them to people concluding that they're giving her a tougher time.”
But bad publicity is still publicity, PR practitioners would often say. Which makes the unrelenting attacks on Sarah Palin more bothersome for the media that dislike her and the Democrats (and maybe even Republicans) who want her slaughtered. It will give her more media mileage.
Penn acknowledged: “What happened here very clearly is that the controversy over Palin led to 37 million Americans tuning into a vice-presidential speech, something that is unprecedented, because they wanted to see for themselves.”
And they apparently love what they’re seeing.
The author is observing the US presidential campaigns and elections as a Jefferson Fellow of the East-West Center.