Unlike the “Republican establishment” (as reported by the NYT) faithful readers of these posts were not surprised by McCain’s decision to think outside the box and choose a woman as his vice presidential candidate. As I suggested in my previous post, the decision was practically guaranteed when Obama failed to select Hillary Clinton. But Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, was not on my short list – indeed, she was not on my list at all. I confess that my speculation focused more on Olympia Snowe, the moderate Senator from Maine. (The optimal choice, had she not been so closely linked to the Bush administration, was Condi Rice – despite my “tease” at the end of my previous post discussing the Biden choice, Rice was never going to happen.) Not surprisingly McCain was smarter than me. On paper, at least, Palin is a brilliant choice for several reasons.
Before I parse the reasons why I think this was an excellent selection, keep several things in mind. First, the ultimate impact of this choice depends on Palin herself. If she shows indications that she is in over her head, then all the calculations that went into this selection are for naught. Second, the media will overstate the impact of this choice on voters’ decisions – historically, the VP choice has a very limited impact on the electoral outcomes. Of course, this race is in many respects unprecedented and thus potentially raises doubt regarding just how relevant previous elections are to this one. There’s been so many firsts in this campaign that it is hard to estimate just how much stock we should put in historical precedent.
Keeping these caveats in mind, here’s why I think this was a great choice.
Undoubtedly, the Democratic attack line will be that this woman is simply too inexperienced to be one heart beat away from the presidency. Just a few years ago she was the small-town mayor in Alaska – now she’s next in line to be President! Compared to Biden, with his years of national experience in the Senate, particularly on foreign policy, this choice smacks of political desperation (the name Geraldine Ferraro comes to mind). When Biden was interrogating Petraeus about the surge, Palin was lecturing members of the local zoning board. This line of attack is so obvious that McCain must have anticipated it. So what was he thinking?
This is what I think he was thinking. First, the Democrats tread in dangerous waters whenever they raise the specter of inexperienced candidates; the obvious Republican response will be a variation of: “our inexperienced candidate will learn on the job one heart beat away from the presidency – your inexperienced candidate will BE president.” The more Democrats push the inexperience angle, the easier it is for Republicans to remind voters who is REALLY the risky candidate.
Second, Palin’s life story is precisely what McCain wanted in his vice president. The impact of her decision among the Christian right not to terminate her pregnancy when she learned her child had Downs syndrome can’t be overstated – it will go a long long long way to convincing evangelicals who to date have shown only tepid support for McCain to come out and actively support his campaign. It thus inoculates him on the right without his having to change any positions – she becomes his surrogate to the evangelical community.
Similarly, she scores points among women whose sons are fighting in Iraq – her oldest son will be fighting in Iraq. So she understands what is at stake there as well – it’s more than an abstract foreign policy issue to her.
In short, she has confronted the difficult choices that will be key issues in this campaign. Her ability to juggle family and job (five kids and she gets elected Governor!) will send just the right signal to working mothers everywhere that she can break the glass ceiling while understanding how difficult that task really is. This doesn’t mean she wins all of Clinton’s women supporters – her prolife stance will undoubtedly put many of them off – but certainly some of them will give her a second look after Obama’s apparent snub of their first choice. Her firing of the Republican party officials for ethics violations and her defeat of the establishment Republican governor will put her squarely in the McCain maverick mold. And her husband’s jobs as a blue collar oil worker and owner of a small fishing business provide a symbolic link to the “common man” (and not incidentally her middle-class roots may take the spotlight off of Cindy McCain’s wealth just a bit.)
Now – there are dangers lurking in this choice beyond the obvious inexperience – there’s a whiff of potential scandal involving a brother in law that the media will undoubtedly pounce on, so one needs to be cautious until this vetting is done. More importantly, she needs to do more than survive her public unveiling – she needs to show confidence on the public stage. The first big test will be her speech at the Convention. First impressions matter, as Dan Quayle found out – he never really recovered from the poor opening performance he gave when presented as Bush’s vice presidential choice in 1988. Palin’s resume won’t be enough – she has to deliver the goods by showing poise, toughness and the ability to take a punch.
And then there will be the debate with Biden – she needs to show she belongs on the same stage with a veteran Senator. But this is an opportunity as well, particularly if Biden – notorious for putting foot in mouth when off script – blunders and says something that women view as demeaning toward Palin and her candidacy. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened with Biden.
I said in an earlier post that by failing to select Clinton as VP, Obama opened a door for McCain to use his choice to differentiate his candidacy from Obama’s, but I wondered if McCain had the imagination to seize the opportunity and select a woman. He showed that he does – that he realizes what is necessary to win this campaign. Given the fundamentals, which favor the “generic” Democratic candidate over the generic Republican, he can’t afford to miss any opportunities. On the other hand, Obama made a mistake (in my view), but it was far from a fatal mistake. Unless he makes a string of small gaffes like this, the choices of Biden and Palin likely will have little long-term impact, based on the history of past vice presidential selections; the more important policy issues – the war in Iraq, the economy, gas prices, health care – will trump the vice presidential choices when voters enter the booth. It’s easy to forget this in the media frenzy over McCain’s choice.
A final thought. Less than 24 hours after Obama made the most important speech of his life, almost no one is talking about it. That is the brilliance of McCain’s choice. For now, in the first crucial decisions of their campaigns, McCain showed daring and a desire for change, while Obama played it safe – too safe, in my view. But there is a long way to go, and the McCain/Palin ticket faces an uphill climb. We’ll see if the Republican convention can push them toward the pinnacle.
If I get a chance, I’ll try to get back to Obama’s speech and the Democratic convention, which now seems like a lifetime ago.