Being Right – The Cults of Personality

Olivia Offner

I never understood the appeal of Barack Obama until John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Don’t get too excited, you audacious Obama-lovers. I don’t mean that Sarah Palin has horrified me into supporting Obama. I like Sarah Palin. I think she’s inspiring, dynamic, a breath of fresh air, a new kind of politician. I like Palin for these reasons, but I realize these are the same exact qualities Obama supporters cite. Sarah Palin has inspired the same kind of cult following among the Republican base that Obama inspired among the liberal base when he first emerged on the political scene.

Palin’s rallies and campaign appearances are drawing record attendance numbers. No politician has inspired such a following since, well, Barack Obama. They both have a kind of rock star fan base that defies logic, and instead plays to the emotion of the voters. We’ve turned this election into a battle of the personality cults. What we really need is a debate between Obama and Palin, so we can see which personality will dominate. Biden and McCain can then hold a debate to talk about the issues. I bet more people would watch the Obama/ Palin debate.

Watching the vice-presidential debate on Thursday and the presidential debate on Tuesday really revealed the strange dichotomy that exists within each party’s ticket. On Thursday, we had Biden vs. Palin. Biden stood up there like a traditional statesman. He sounded confident, firm, experienced and knowledgeable. (Of course, he made at least ten serious errors. When did we ever kick Hezbollah out of Lebanon?) But still, to the relatively uninformed voter, Biden came off as a typically savvy politician. Biden spewed off as many facts as he could, but Palin still stole the show by sweetly asking Biden, “Can I call you Joe?” Biden spoke technically about the war in Iraq and what it meant for the larger war on terror, but all Palin had to do to diffuse that bomb was say, “Your plan is a white flag of surrender.” She had him at, “can I call ya Joe?”

Then on Tuesday, McCain and Obama squared off. McCain clearly won the debate. His points were rational and logical, and he showed that he understands the problems America is facing at home and abroad. But pundits and pollsters still declared Obama the winner. Frank Luntz’s group thought he “got” them. Obama, like Palin, doesn’t really answer the question he is asked. Like Palin, Obama gives answers that are filled with ideals, anecdotes about growing up in “real” America, and essentially empty rhetoric. Obama doesn’t cite his years of experience or his vast record for the same reason that Palin doesn’t cite hers; neither of them has a record to cite.

Obama and Palin each have an ideology that is far from the mainstream; Obama is the most liberal member of the Senate, and Palin is decidedly right-wing. They both have a commanding presence, and an ability to win followers with their charisma and charm. But neither of them has the experience to be President of the United States. The reason that Obama and Palin are so vilified by their opposing parties is they are personalities without records. There is nothing to go on but their decidedly partisan ideologies and agendas. I can admit that Sarah Palin isn’t as experienced as I’d like, but because she and I share an ideology, I’m comfortable with her anyway. (And it doesn’t hurt that she’s running at the bottom of the ticket) So now, I can finally understand how liberals could embrace Obama, a man with no experience and no one to recommend him. (Except for Rev. Wright, Tony Rezko, and Bill Ayers.)

When I told a few friends, both liberals and conservatives, that I would be writing a column comparing Obama and Palin, they all replied that the comparison was offensive. Where they differed was on whether the comparison was offensive to Obama, or offensive to Palin. Liberals react very strongly to Sarah Palin. Conservatives react very strongly to Barack Obama. The reactions are visceral, intense and spirited. The hatred of these two figures has sparked American creativity. Liberals call Palin “Mooselini,” “Caribou Barbie,” and “the bitch to nowhere.” Conservatives refer to “the audacity of hype” and like to point out that you only have to change four letters to turn Obama Biden into Osama bin Laden. You can’t deny that these nicknames and plays on words aren’t clever. But they also aren’t productive. They also aren’t particularly relevant to the problems Americans are facing. They play strictly to the passion of voters, and that passion may overpower the political reality.

The polls are showing Obama in the lead right now, but there is still hope for Republicans. Polls change. At this time in 2000, Gore had a considerable lead on Bush. (And don’t even try to tell me that Gore really won the election) We all know the popular vote is irrelevant, and that the President is determined by the Electoral College. There is one outcome of the election that is possible, though not particularly probable. If there is a tie in the Electoral College, the question of who wins would go to Capitol Hill, where the House would determine the President and the Senate would determine the Vice President. If this occurred, we could see President Obama and Vice President Palin. This outcome would really play with the passions of Americans.