Tomorrow night, should John McCain prove himself able to multi-task and the first presidential debate goes on, Sarah Palin will step once again onto the faux populist stage. Just ten blocks from my office, Palin will sidle up to the bar, have a beer and shot, and cheer on McSame with a rowdy crowd of handpicked Republican supporters. The campaign has chosen a symoblic watering hole: a woodpaneled place called the Irish Pub, where my people (or rather people pretending to be my people) can get a pint of Guinness on tap and pretend that they are back on the old sod of the Emerald Isle.
Alas, there's not much Irish about the Irish Pub other than the beer, a couple of Irish flags, and a bunch of Celtic tchotschkes. It's a corporate sort of place, one that caters to the after-work crowd in Center City Philly on weeknights and fills up with frat boys and Wharton students who, no doubt, will be drowning their sorrows now that Bear Stearns, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch won't be lavishing them with lucrative job offers.
The faux populism of watching the debate in a faux Irish pub would not be lost on the Irish people whom I knew best. Grandma and Grandpa S, who immigrated from Ireland to the United States in the early 1920s, became die-hard Democrats when they moved to the U.S. My grandfather, a city bus driver and lifelong union member, and my grandmother, who took care of her four children and various folks in the extended family, were the sort of commonsense, working-class people who supported political candidates for bread and butter reasons. They voted for politicians who promised to protect their jobs and economic security--not candidates who pretended to be like them while representing the interests of stock brokers and CEOs. Grandma and Grandpa S owed a lot to the party of FDR, especially their monthly Social Security and union pension checks. They kept their savings in a bank regulated by the FDIC. They could have cared less about capital gains tax reductions and corporate bailouts.
I'm hoping that enough voters, especially in Rustbelt swing states, share my grandparents' simple wisdom and resist the sham populism of McCain and Palin. Pretending to be one of the people makes for fine symbolic politics but, after eight years of government under the guy you could drink a beer with, it's time to move on. We don't need any more drinking buddies in the White House. This week's polls, the best for Obama/Biden in a while, suggest that the direction of the campaign might be changing. Still, we should expect the Republicans to cling to their blarney. John McCain will keep fulminating against the Wall Street honchos whose fortunes he protected from regulation for the last quarter century. Sarah Palin doesn't have much to pitch, other than herself as a small-town, anti-elitist of the God, Guns, and Guts variety, minus the bitterness but also minus the brains.
So tomorrow night, if the debate goes on, I'll be watching in my neighborhood watering hole, owned by the son of Irish immigrants and probably the most racially diverse bar in the city. And I'll hoist a pint in honor of my grandparents and the politics that their grandchildren's children deserve.