As Democrats and Barack Obama's campaign scrambled to attack Sarah Palin's well-received acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday night, they latched on early and hard to the fact that it was penned by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully. But the story is more complicated than just the recycling of a Bush staffer into John McCain's fold, and it tells you more about how McCain's camp intends to use Palin than it does about the continuing influence of the current White House.
The clues are in the text itself. Scully started working on the vice-presidential speech a week ago, before he or anyone else knew who the nominee would be, and it's not hard to pick out the parts that would have been the same regardless of who delivered it. Scully unspooled two centrist themes via Palin that have been key to the McCain message: the idea that the Republican nominee puts service to country ahead of career and the notion that he's the true representative of Middle America. Both themes implicitly push Obama and Biden to the left, and Scully made them explicit with lines accusing the Democrats of élitism and talking down to working-class voters.
Once Palin was chosen, Scully tailored the speech to the Alaska governor, highlighting her biography and using her PTA background and local political experience (contrasted so memorably with Obama's work as a community organizer) to bolster his two themes. Where much media attention in the wake of her surprise naming has focused on Palin's views on cultural issues like abortion, the speech carefully steered away from ideological touchstones. Palin was shown as an average mainstream American looking to bring change to Washington, further bolstering McCain's overarching message of reforming the wasteful Federal Government.
Scully was a good choice to help moderate Palin's right-wing image. A veteran of the early Bush White House, his specialty was crafting Bush's pro-life message in a way that would not offend soccer moms or mainstream Catholics who get nervous around some of the more extreme Evangelical rhetoric. A former protégé of the late pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, Scully has a history of finding rhetorical unity for voters on the right and in the center.
The Palin-Scully pairing is anything but a guaranteed fit, though. Palin is known as an avid hunter; Scully is best known for his vigorous defense of animal rights. A vegetarian who is regularly critical of the NRA and much of the hunting community, he is a passionate advocate for doing away with the more brutal versions of blood-sport, including aerial hunting, which Palin supports.
Don't be surprised, though, if the combination continues. McCain wanted to pick a centrist Vice President not just because he liked candidates such as Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, but because he badly needs to close the gap in swing states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, where he trails Obama. But he had to pick a cultural conservative like Palin because he couldn't risk alienating an already demoralized base. If Palin was viewed as the most likely right winger to sell in the swing states, Scully is the right pick to help repackage her from a base pleaser into a bridge builder. (See photos of Sarah Palin here.)