Friday, August 29, 2008


It's that rare combination in politics that can make the difference for a successful campaign. The perfect combination of contrasts in running mates. Conventional wisdom is that the lead candidate--for governor or president--should pick someone with appropriate contrasts, either in political philosophy, regional identity, or experience. And if that person brings a certain bloc of voters along for the ride, all the better.

Occasionally, there's the rare winning combination of people very alike--think Stan Stephens and Allen Kolstad in 1988. (Both conservative High Liners who served together in the Senate.) More likely, though, a running mate brings something the lead candidate doesn't have and should appeal to people not necessarily in the lead's corner.

This year, we have seen a remarkable use of those contrasts. Skin color. Hair color. Gender. Age. Geography.

Of course, visual symbolism can only go so far. Ideas do matter and a candidate's words and deeds can make or break a campaign. As September opens, I think about the teams that will be competing for Montanans' votes in November.

Schweitzer and Bohlinger. This team still plays on what it considers the ultimate contrast--a life-long, if moderate, Republican playing second-in-command to a fiery, passionate, Democrat. Bohlinger the avuncular gentleman with his shock of white hair and bow ties, running with the youthful, jeans-and-bolo-wearing Energizer bunny. Together, they seem to delight in the harrumphs that their partnership has drawn from people in both parties who just don't approve. And they seem to have more fun than any other chief executive team ever.

Brown and Daines. In the limited times I've seen them together, Roy Brown represents thoughtful solidity, while Steve Daines presumably brings the energy and restlessness that every campaign needs. Brown seems to move and speak slowly. And to eye and ear, he's not typical. The hair is nearly a pompadour, the voice in an upper range that is hardly commanding.
Daines offers a more standard look and sound, and I'm sure Brown & Co. hope that--and his link to the electronic world that today's youth inhabit--will be an asset to younger voters who will turn out to vote for president but who aren't sure about the governor's race.

McCain and Palin. This is a picture we've never seen before. The aging and scarred warrior whose face and story we all know, backed by the young and, let's face it, attractive female confidante who bursts on the scene from nowhere. This is not Mondale-Ferraro. It's something different. Radically different, coming from the Republicans. Putting aside what each half of the team represents in policy and potential voter appeal, the picture of McCain and Palin together must make political cartoonists drool. Even if it's just the older man, younger woman stereotype. And the combination of two such iconic western states--Arizona with its Grand Canyon and Alaska with Mt. McKinley--should give satirists and campaign image-makers alike a lot to work with. Add in all the news about Palin in the last few days, and cartoonists must be dizzy.

Obama and Biden. Youth and energy head the ticket, age and wisdom back it up. Black skin and white skin--a first. Close-cropped black hair next to thick white hair. Winning smiles, both, with attractive spouses, also with contrasting hair and skin. Cartoonists may eventually portray this team in ways similar to Bush & Cheney, with the elder and more experienced VP controlling the man in the Oval Office. Rather than showing Biden as puppeteer, though, the satirical image I see is the coach driver holding the reins, not choosing the direction, but rather making sure his powerful horse doesn't run off the road or fly out of control while charging ahead towards his destination.


Just when you thought the presidential campaign could not be any more ground-breaking, McCain picks his running mate. A woman! A first-term governor! Younger than Obama! Photogenic as heck! From Alaska no less!
Immediate first impression: on symbolism alone, it's an incredibily astute, bold move. For the short term at least, Sarah Palin may give a lot of women voters pause to think. And by choosing a running mate who also represents the far west of America, McCain could make western voters take notice. (You can bet the calls are coming in from state party organizations all over the Mountain and Pacific time zones, wanting Palin to visit.)
Of course, Palin's record and experience (or lack of it) will be extolled, bemoaned and generally dissected over the coming days. And by November, her appeal to female voters, especially those who are not conservative, may diminish as they learn more about her.
It's also possible that over the next two months, Americans' unvarnished values and beliefs about race and gender will show themselves in ways that aren't pretty.
But for the moment, it's hard to look at what the American political system has shown the world in recent days and not say, "Wow!"

Thursday, August 7, 2008


The dog days of August are over now, and with the national convention scene almost to the halfway point, there are some things to talk about.

Brian Schweitzer sure made an impression at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. Too bad the major commercial networks condensed their coverage so much that we missed the fireworks. NBC's Tom Brokaw, who certainly knows Montana, helped steer his network's coverage toward Schweitzer's rallying, call-and-response, address. By the time NBC cut to the podium, the Montana governor was wrapping up. Brokaw and Brian Williams spoke a bit more about Schweitzer afterward, but the country missed quite a show. (I wasn't tuned in to public television or radio, but apparently, Schweitzer's entire appearance was broadcast live on those stations.)
Put simply, Montana has never had a governor who was in a position to make that kind of speech. Nor have we had a governor capable of pulling it off and bringing everyone in the arena, including Bill Clinton to Michele Obama, to their feet.

How will Roy Brown & Co. respond to that kind of performance? My guess is that we'll start hearing the "work horse vs. show horse" theme on a regular basis, as Brown asks voters whether they really want a celebrity governor who performs for national audiences and television cameras or whether they'd prefer a quiet, thoughtful governor who stays home and tends to business. Expect a lot more of this theme if the Democrats' national organization puts Schweitzer on the campaign trail for Obama.

Brown also may go after Schweitzer in another way, by pointing out small issues, magnifying them and then hoping voters turn them into larger issues of character and trustworthiness.
Whether it's Schweitzer's definition of when a document is "signed"--namely, whether it's when he puts pen to paper or when he actually releases the inked document--or the investigation into a radio public service announcement, I predict Brown and his campaign will attempt to sow seeds of doubt about the state's popular chief executive.