Is it Biden vs. Palin, or Obama vs. Palin?

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.

One comment

  1. Best post I’ve read so far!

    Matt, I’ll come across as partisan, but, simply put, this choice troubles me. Isn’t just getting the label “thinks outside the box” exactly the point of Sen. McCain’s pick? If you were looking at a foreign political system, you’d have no trouble suggesting that conservative blocks may have few qualms about selling their country down the river in the way they recruit for elections. It strikes me this is almost directly in line with the practices behind the last (disasterous) ticket that the Republican Party fashioned: “All it takes to make sure we’re the ones running the country is a back-room decision to groom some completely untested candidate based on poll numbers alone.”

    By contrast, Sen. Obama is young, but in every public test so far has proven his brilliance as an orator, and demonstrated he tends to be a very level-headed “decider.” He even beat the establishment Democratic Party candidate as an outsider! That’s the mark of major leadership potential.

    I can see that it will be easy to portray Sen. Biden as a loose cannon compared to Gov. Palin, and, in practical terms, that ought to be enough to neutralize the advantage that the Democrats may have from their V-P choice. (That’s, of course, the consequence to the Democrats of having teamed with Biden, not the consequence of the Republicans having teamed with Palin.) But does Palin have obvious negatives?

    My counsel to the Obama campaign would be to skirt the “experience” issue and define what “assets” the VPs bring to the work of the executive branch. First, are we to believe she’s on par with Sen. Biden — that she’s already jelled with McCain, and is someone like the other VP, who is not only exceptionally informed, but will speak her mind to the Prez when tough decisions are in order? Consider also that the Congress may well continue to have a Democratic majority. Apropos of your earlier critique of Sen. Biden, you could just as easily turn the criticism around and say of her, “She’s no Dick Cheney.” In fact, she’s a potential White House liability in dealings with a Democratic Congress. (And I’m kind of surprised that you haven’t levelled this leadership critique at Gov. Palin, the same way you pointed this out about Sen. Biden recently.)

    It was incredibly astute of you to point to the risk that Gov. Palin may seem out of place in the next few months — I imagine a bit like GHW Bush using a barcode scanner in the checkout line. “Gee, is THAT what VPs are for?”

    It’s great to see the parties breaking down barriers, but on the other hand, regardless of Gov. Palin’s personal qualities, this decision smacks of charity — it doesn’t look like the career path of a woman who’s earned her status in national politics, but the heavy marketing of a still-empty pantsuit. As you note, maybe it is because the Republicans still have such a thin field. Maybe she’s the only Republican woman who wasn’t already tainted by some kind of personal scandal. (Obama didn’t seem to have many options either. Sibelius is a bore, and Napolitano and Clinton both have the baggage of controversy.) This is a decision strictly for the bounce, and Gov. Palin might even come to be portrayed that way. But that’s wishful thinking. Women can rightfully support the Republican Party decision to put a woman on their ticket. And the media can’t reach voters’ conclusions for them, just parrot what’s being spouted by both parties.

    Have a great Labor Day weekend!

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