Defending the Palin pick

I’ve received a healthy dose of feedback – mostly critical – from you in the last two days regarding my characterization of the Palin pick as an effective choice. You’ve raised three main objections:

1. How can I criticize Biden for having the “wrong” type of foreign policy experience to effectively advise Obama, but not criticize Palin who has almost no foreign policy experience of any type? She is clearly even less useful as an adviser than is Biden.

2. The Palin pick simply reminds voters once again of McCain’s advanced age (he just turned 72 and would be the oldest elected first-term president in our history). Given his age, her lack of preparation to be president is particularly worrisome and thus makes voting for McCain an even riskier prospect.
3. Most disaffected Clinton supporters will find Palin’s policy views unpalatable and hence are unlikely to vote Republican come November.

These are all valid objections. In evaluating the Palin choice, however, we must consider what McCain sought to accomplish with his VP pick, and what the available alternatives there were for accomplishing those objectives.

First, McCain – unlike Obama with his choice of Biden – did not select Palin in terms of her advising potential in foreign policy or any other area. Obama clearly sought to reassure voters that he would have a wise hand at his side with Biden in the Oval Office. McCain’s objectives were entirely different – he wanted to signal that he too is an agent for change – a “maverick” Republican not afraid to take chances. A vote for him is not simply a vote for four more years of the “failed Bush-Cheney” policies – it is a vote for a new direction in politics. And he needed to shore up his credentials with the conservative wing of the Republican party. If elected, McCain is not going to be relying on Palin for foreign policy advice (or for much policy advice at all I would guess – at least not initially).

Second, it is true that this pick may cause voters to reconsider their vote in light of McCain’s age. But the age issue will hover over this election like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s feast. McCain must have calculated that the benefits of the Palin pick outweighed the uncertainty it may cause among some voters as they consider his age. We shall see if his calculation is correct but at first glance, I can’t say the tradeoff is not worth making. Indeed, my read is that he gains much more than he loses here. Again, the default response that every Republican must make when this issue comes up is: “What is the riskier choice – Obama as President, or Palin as Vice President. They are both inexperienced, but we are only voting for one as President.”

Third, without seeing survey data, I can’t be sure how Clinton’s supporters – particularly women – will react to this choice. My guess is that the majority of them will default to Obama, particularly given Palin’s stance on gun control, abortion, and other social issues. But McCain is wagering that by choosing Palin, he may win the votes of what polls suggest are a significant minority of Clinton supporters who vow that they will not vote for Obama no matter what. It is not too farfetched, in my view, to believe that at least some of them will now be more likely to pull the lever for McCain because of the Palin selection. Without polling data, I can’t be sure how many that will be. But no one can predict with certainty what many women will do when they are alone in the polling booth, and they consider that Obama had the chance to put Clinton on the ticket and did not. My guess is that not a few will vote the McCain/Palin ticket, and in a close race that may be enough to swing a state to the Republican column. Or so McCain has calculated.

Given these factors, I remain convinced this was a high risk choice, but one that has a potentially big payoff – assuming (a huge assumption) that Palin rises to the occasion. And all the signs so far (and it is still early) suggest that when evaluated in terms of McCain’s objectives, this was a huge winner. The latest indication is the huge spike in fundraising in the 48 hours since the Palin choice. Having said that, I also believe that in the long run the Palin selection will not fundamentally change the dynamics of this race.

Now, consider McCain’s alternative choices. The pundits’ short list, unlike mine, focused on Romney, Pawlenty, and Ridge as the frontrunners, with Lieberman as a dark horse choice. But these were the Joe Biden equivalent choices – safe, predictable and thus wrong for McCain if he wanted to signal that he is for change and capture the media’s attention. Once Biden was selected, as those of you reading my posts know, I thought the door was open underneath a flashing neon light surrounded by spotlights that said, “Pick a woman, John!”. (The other option was to pick a Democrat – Lieberman – but I thought it was too risky given his social views. Lieberman simply mimics McCain on foreign policy and at the same time would alienate the conservative wing of the Republican party). So, what women are available? My first pick was Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Senator. I still think she might have been a wise choice based on her experience but she just turned 65 and may have been viewed as too old to pair with McCain. Olympia Snow was another option, but she’s very moderate and did nothing to shore up his conservative credentials. Condi Rice was the dream choice, but with her on the ticket it would have been too easy to paint McCain as four more years of Bush-Cheney.

When you consider the alternatives, then, the Palin choice begins to make sense.. On another issue: looking solely at the impact on the Republican convention, Hurricane Gustav is not the disaster pundits are describing it as. First, it provides a valid excuse to keep Bush and Cheney off the convention speakers’ list, thus removing a potentially sticky public relations problem – you can’t disinvite an unpopular president to his party’s nominating convention. But now Bush and Cheney have a valid reason not to come. Second, this will provide plenty of photo ops for McCain to appear presidential. Look for Bush, behind the scenes, to make sure McCain has plenty of opportunities to be seen visiting the emergency shelters, evaluations areas, etc.

One comment

  1. If this is political pandering, it seems to be backfiring. Media reports and a review of the talking heads’ round-up seem to indicate that the public has a more negative than a positive perception of the seemingly never-ending string of bizarre revelations from the Palins (what next ??). As Gustav turned out to be a bit of a dud, the news cycle seems to be working against the Palins. Odds that Palin would be dropped have risen. Now granted all these are short term observations and Prof Dickinson would like us to look at the forest, not the trees. In all likelihood, barring any other skeletons in the closet or major mis-steps by McCain-Palin (here speech tonight is critical), the republican frame of moral values would carry the day (hypocrisy notwithstanding) and the media and public would move on to the next big story. The veep pick would continue to consolidate the evangelical base while providing an elusive target to the dems who have significantly less to gain by going on the offensive against Palin.

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