In Depth

Sarah Palin could be the new Ronald Reagan

John McCain looks doomed. But on last night’s evidence, Sarah Palin has a political future

Sarah Palin could still end up as a footnote to history, the same way Geraldine Ferraro did after the Mondale-Ferraro ticket plummeted to defeat in 1984 when Ronald Reagan won his second term. Or she could be back in the coming years as a major Republican player on the national scene.

As the pick of those betting on the latter proposition, Palin did herself the best of favours last night. After widely criticised interviews with Gibson of ABC and Couric of CBS she put up a spirited performance against Joe Biden in the one and only vice-presidential debate in St Louis and showed that just like Ronald Reagan she might be shaky on the fine print but knows how to write the headlines.

The giant issues in America today are the economy and the $700bn bail-out. No one outside the professional commentariat really wants to know whether Sarah Palin is capable of waging nuclear war or frying Afghan 'terrorists'.  They want a sense that there's someone in the political tier who sounds somewhat like a human being with the same concerns as them, starting with the fear that their local bank will lock its doors in the morning.

In their debate last week neither Obama nor McCain passed this simple test. Last night Joe Biden, a silver-haired denizen of Washington in his sixth, six-year term, tried to offer himself as worried Joe Six-pack from Scranton, PA, but the act was pretty thin. Palin, despite somewhat excessive folksiness, with "gosh-darneds" and the like, did look as though she and Todd had spent some time at their kitchen table in the not-too-distant past figuring out how to pay the bills and deciding they couldn't afford health insurance.

This was no faltering Palin unable to tell Katie Couric which newspaper she read. This was a Palin fiercely denouncing, at least a dozen times across 90 minutes, "the corruption on Wall Street". Alone of the four candidates, she spoke to the fury and fear of Main Street America about the $700bn bail-out, now approved by the US Senate and probably soon to be passed by the House of Representatives after the requisite number of Republicans have been bribed or cowed into submission.

The bail-out - not yet quite a done deal - gives $700bn to the big moneymen in Wall Street to smuggle into safe harbours, while making the US Treasury the debt collector from middle and working-class Americans unable to pay their mortgages and facing foreclosure.

Both presidential candidates - Obama, the salesman of hope and McCain the maverick - voted in the US Senate for the plan drafted by Treasury Secretary Paulson, formerly the CEO of Goldman Sachs. So did Senator Joe Biden. Palin is the only one not inconvenienced by a Yes to bail-out, and was therefore able to denounce the "toxic mess" on Wall Street.

If McCain had issued similar denunciations in his debate, and campaigned against the bail-out across the last ten days in Washington and voted No in the Senate, his campaign would not now be in a truly desperate situation.

Obama doesn't have to say much. Americans are living through the last months of an eight-year Republican presidency and the experience has proved harrowing. Crucial  'battleground states' like Pennsylvania are tilting decisively towards the Democrats.

Will Palin's performance last night - victorious in the first 45 minutes, adequate in the second half - stop McCain's slide? Almost certainly not. The Republican presidential candidate is beleaguered not only by his awful performance on the bail-out, but also by questions about his health. Nothing Palin could have done last night will rehab McCain on these matters, though he has two more debates with Obama in which he can try to repair the damage.

On present trends, the McCain-Palin ticket is doomed, just as the Republican presidential campaign of another Arizonan senator, Barry Goldwater, was crushed by Lyndon Johnson, in 1964.

Yet that defeat was the making of Ronald Reagan, who stole every right-wing Republican heart with his speech for Goldwater in the party convention that year. Two years later, Reagan was governor of California. Twelve years later in 1976,  he was challenging an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford. In 1980 he won the presidency.

More than once last night I thought Palin must have been watching re-runs of Reagan's speeches, though decades of deference to Hollywood tycoons made Reagan far more respectful of Wall Street than the Alaskan Governor, who even presumed to introduce the antique phrase "working class" into the debate. Her first national political run may have only a month to go, but last night she won herself a long-term political future.

Alexander Cockburn will cover the final presidential debates between John McCain and Barack Obama on October 7 and 15.

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