Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Contenders: Geraldine Ferraro & Sarah Palin (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the latest episode of The Contenders: 16 for ‘16, a surprisingly fascinating documentary series on recent Presidential contenders — Charles, who hadn’t been home for any of the previous episodes, wondered if they’d gone back in history but I said that Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was as far back as they’d gone: they wanted recent history in the film and TV age. This one was a bit different in that they focused on two failed vice-presidential candidates, both women: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008. The obvious news hook for this show was the fact that a woman is a Presidential nominee this year — and at the moment, at least according to the polls, it looks like she’s going to win (though I just read Michael Moore’s interview in the Los Angeles Times about his new movie TrumpLand — actually a film of a one-person live show he did about Donald Trump — and it contained his warning not to believe the polls; he’s convinced there’s a much greater reservoir of support for Trump in Midwest and Rust Belt states like his native Michigan than is showing up in the polls), meaning we’ll have a woman President before we’ve ever had a woman vice-president. The interesting parallel the show made about Ferraro and Palin is that both were seen as fresh faces on the national scene and both immediately boosted the campaigns of the presidential candidates who picked them — Walter Mondale and John McCain, respectively — and then both got bogged down. Ferraro got caught in a scandal over her and her husband’s tax returns — she said she’d release hers but not his, and that she’d delay filing her financial disclosure statements (the ones that are required by Federal elections law, and which Donald Trump has said should suffice instead of tax returns) until the end of the legal 90-day deadline. It created the impression that her husband, John Zaccaro, had some degree of corruption in his dealings as a New York real-estate developer — which he didn’t, though the delay also turned the national media against Ferraro and she was subjected to a two-hour press conference, the longest ever held by anyone to that time (and possibly to this day as well!). The questions pretty much neutralized any value she might have brought to Mondale’s foredoomed attempt to unseat Ronald Reagan, whose media people sold the U.S. voters a bill of goods that it was “Morning in America” and the great heroic figure of Reagan had vanquished all the doubts of the Carter years and — dare I say it? — made America great again.

Sarah Palin was a fresh face — she’d been elected governor of Alaska just two years before McCain picked her — and I was surprised this documentary did not mention that McCain had actually wanted Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. To McCain, Lieberman was a valued Senate colleague who, after being rejected by liberal Democratic primary voters, had kept his seat by running as a non-partisan candidate and winning. To all too many people in the Republican base, Lieberman was still seen as a Democrat — and as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, to boot (and Gore’s selection of the Right-wing Lieberman was one of the main reasons I voted for Ralph Nader instead of him) — and McCain was told in no uncertain terms that if he went with Lieberman he’d face an open revolt in the party. So, needing a ground-breaking choice in a hurry, he picked Palin because she’d solidify his backing in the Republican base (especially since on the big social issue, abortion, she was staunchly anti-choice) and hopefully peel off Democrats who’d voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and would be grateful for a second chance to vote for a woman. That didn’t work — the Democratic electorate quickly united behind Barack Obama and there were “women for Obama” marches in which liberal and pro-choice women took to the streets to say Palin didn’t represent them. But Palin’s selection energized McCain’s campaign even though she, like Ferraro, was sandbagged by the national media — in Palin’s case not over her or her husband’s financial dealings but over a combination of enthusiasm and ignorance that came across as ill-prepared ditziness and made a lot of voters wonder if this was really the person they wanted one 72-year-old cancer survivor’s heartbeat away from the White House. The show included a clip of Sarah Palin saying that there were parts of Alaska from which you could see parts of Russia (which I suppose is true if you’re into hiking up the north of the state to the edge of the Bering Strait) and Tina Fey playing Palin on Saturday Night Live saying, “I can see Russia from my living room!” — a line almost universally attributed, then and since, to Palin herself. (Then again, this year the Saturday Night Live parodies have had a hard time keeping up with the absurdity of the election itself; just one day after the show parodied the first Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate, with Clinton accusing Trump of thinking human-caused climate change was a hoax cooked up by China, Alec Baldwin as the SNL Trump said, “It’s pronounced Ghina,” the real Trump told a crowd of Nevadans that their state’s name should be pronounced “Neh-VAAH-duh” instead of “Neh-VAA-duh.”)

Palin gave a series of interviews to major media people in which she had no idea what the “Bush Doctrine” was — one Republican spokesperson on the show said she was ill-served by her handlers who didn’t brief her for these interviews, though given what we know about Palin it seems that she didn’t want to hold still for this sort of preparation — which makes it fitting that she was one of the first national Republicans to endorse Trump in the primaries this year: they both seem to delight in their ability to “wing it” through speeches, interviews and debates and end up saying things that so convolutedly twist and turn around each other it’s sometimes hard to figure out just what they mean by what they say. Nonetheless, McCain was actually gaining steadily on Obama in the polls until September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and averting the impending collapse of the American economy suddenly became issue number one in the campaign — and as the “out” party and therefore the one most obviously blame-worthy, the Republicans were fatally handicapped and Obama became the first Presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush to win an absolute majority of the popular vote. It’s interesting, given what’s happened since, that McCain’s big moves in the campaign — choosing Palin as his running mate and invoking “Joe the Plumber” (who turned out to be Sam the plumber’s assistant) in one of the debates with Obama — were both big-time plays for the white working-class vote which had once been part of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition but had shifted decisively Right in the 1960’s and is now the bulwark of the Republican Party (and one big reason Trump is this year’s Republican nominee is that, though born to wealth, he managed to speak the language of working-class America better than anyone else in either major party — though it’s interesting that states like Michigan and Wisconsin, with their large numbers of industrial workers displaced by foreign competition and America’s shocking deindustrialization, were states whose remaining Democratic voters went strongly for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton as well).

Just as Mondale in 1984 was unable to overcome the Reagan “Morning in America” myth (which has proved so historically powerful that Reagan’s 1980 election, in which he actually won just a bare majority of the popular vote — 51 percent — has gone down in history as a landslide), McCain in 2008 was unable to overcome the country’s exhaustion with the George W. Bush administration and the economic collapse that led a lot of voters to decide that the Democrats couldn’t possibly do any worse — though as things turned out the country remained strongly conservative and Republican overall, voting out the Democratic House majority in 2010 (and also putting Republicans in charge of a lot of state governments — especially significant because any election in a year ending in zero determines who will get to draw the district lines for the next decade, and the Republican state governments have used that power to give their party a virtual “lock” on the House majority no matter how the total nationwide vote for House members splits — yet another example of how Germany does democracy better than we do; they apportion their legislature by the national popular vote, which we don’t and, I think, should) and the Democratic Senate majority in 2014. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the so-called “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect exactly one person — Obama himself — otherwise the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democratic Party after another, and if Hillary Clinton wins this year’s election it will be by default because she isn’t Donald Trump, and the Republicans in Congress will hamstring her the way they have Obama and prevent her from doing much of anything — and count the days until 2020, when Mike Pence or Ted Cruz or whoever comes along as their party’s, and the nation’s, savior.