Tag Archives: Palin

I am Woman, See Me Wink: Assessing Tuesday’s Election Results

What, if anything, should we conclude from the results of the last major set of elections before the November midterms?  The Main Stream Media (MSM) and several blogs have apparently decided to interpret the results through the gender frame (see here and here and here), by highlighting women winning Senate primaries in California and Arkansas, and gubernatorial primaries in California and South Carolina.

I can understand why that frame is being used, but I see no evidence that any of these women won because of their gender.  Instead, their victories were driven by the usual suspects: good financial backing, weak opponents, and being on the right side of the issues.  But if we are determined to look at the results through the gender prism, then I suggest a big winner – at least in terms of perceptions – is everyone’s favorite Moosemeister Sarah Palin. Alaska’s finest took a gamble by personally campaigning for Tea Party candidate Nikki Haley in South Carolina’s gubernatorial race, and stuck by her when the dirt started to fly.  Palin also broke with the Tea Party to back Carly Fiorina in California’s Republican primary – another winner.  And Palin’s candidate in the Iowa governor’s Republican primary, Terry Branstad, also won (beating the Tea Party candidate), although that was a less risky bet on her part.   Palin’s lone loss was her backing of Cecil Bledsoe for a House seat in Arkansas.

By my unofficial count, Palin has now endorsed or given money to six gubernatorial candidates (including Haley and Rick Perry in Texas), 13 U.S. Senate candidates (including Fiorina and Rand Paul in Kentucky and Rob Portman in Ohio), and 11 U.S. House candidates.  Her governors picks have all won, as have several of her most publicized Senate picks.  However, her candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election to replace John Murtha lost.  We shouldn’t overplay the substantive impact of these endorsements.  For now I’m more interested in the media perception they create as Palin continues to flirt with running for the Presidency in 2012.  Like her or not, she continues to be a player, despite the predictions that her career was over when she resigned as Alaska’s governor.

But what did the results tell us regarding my two themes: anti-incumbency and the strength of the Tea Party movement?  In the most highly publicized (and thus not necessarily representative) sample of races, incumbents challenged from the Right did more poorly than those challenged on the Left.  Most notably, netroot progressives are lamenting Bill Halter’s defeat by the more moderate Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas.  Halter lost a close race despite being ahead in the last polls (but these were Research2000/Daily Kos polls so…) and despite strong financial support and backing from the MoveOn.org, and from labor unions.  What is perhaps most interesting in perusing the progressive blogs is their oft-stated claim that Halter had a much better shot at winning the Senate seat against Republican John Boozman in November.  Their argument?: Voters want a real choice. At the same time, however, these same progressives insist that Republicans blew it by nominating Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle to take on Harry Reid in Nevada’s Senate race, because the public is likely to shy away from her more ideologically extreme views.  This may be true, but the contradiction in political reasoning underlying these claims is a reminder that many of the most popular sites in the blogosphere are not necessarily the place to go for unbiased political analysis.

More generally, when we assess the strength of the anti-incumbency fervor, we need to remember that even in “wave” election years more than 75% of Senators and up to 90% of House incumbents typically still win reelection.  The angry mob doesn’t throw everybody out.  Note that Lincoln won her race with about 15% turnout – almost half of the 30% that turned out in May.  So we shouldn’t read too much into these results in terms of representing general sentiment.

As for the Tea Party, in the high profile races that I focused on two nights ago, the Tea Party candidates – Angle, Nikki Haley, and Trey Gowdy – all did well. Angle received over $500,000 in Tea Party money and despite the netroots claims that she can’t beat Harry Reid, current polling has them in a dead heat.  In this environment, I’m not ready to bet against her.  Haley, just missed avoiding a runoff for the Republican gubernatorial primary, but she will almost certainly win the nomination in the next round of voting (June 22 I believe). Gowdy finished 12% ahead of the incumbent Republican Inglis in South Carolina’s 4rth district, although they also will have a rematch. If Inglis loses in the runoff, he will be the second House incumbent to lose his seat in this election cycle.   And a Tea Party candidate won the vacated Representatives seat in Georgia and will now serve in Congress.

But the Tea Party-backed candidate Chuck DeVore lost in the California Republican Senate primary and they lost down ticket races for the House there as well, so it wasn’t a clean sweep for them either.  Keep in mind that the Tea Party influence is likely to be strongest in low-turnout primaries, since more moderates voters tend not to participate in these.   So we shouldn’t overreact to the Tea Party’s success.   On the other hand, it’s clear that they are more than a “media” creation, despite E.J. Dionne’s claims to the contrary.

On the whole, I don’t see much that happened Tuesday that leads me to believe we saw any shift in electoral dynamics from what I’ve previously described.  The Tea Party is a force, but not an overwhelming one; incumbents are vulnerable in this national climate of voter anxiety, but that vulnerability will vary depending on local circumstances, and Sarah Palin is still confounding critics.

Palin, Women and the Future of the Republican Party

When a political party loses a presidential election as decisively as the Republicans did this year, party members inevitable engage in a very public spectacle of playing the blame game. Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, they exchange recriminations, dissect candidate choices, replay campaign strategies, and generally proclaim that the party’s very existence is in jeopardy unless some dramatic changes are made.  As I noted in an earlier posting, it was only four years ago that Democrats openly worried that they had become a permanent minority party, geographically marginalized to urban centers on the coasts along with decaying Midwest rust-belt cities, with a constituency consisting primarily of cultural and intellectual snobs (i.e., college professors!), African-Americans and labor union leaders.

Now it is the Republicans turn to despair. They are now, if media reports are to be believed, the geographically isolated party, their support limited to the South and Great Plains, and their constituency reduced to the famous bible-thumping, gun toting rural white voters. Media stories are replete with accounts of battles between cultural conservatives, small government fiscal conservatives, and social libertarians for the soul of the Republican Party.

What are we to make of this?  Accounts of the death of the Republican Party, I would suggest, are greatly exaggerated. I see little evidence that the 2008 election presages an era in which the Republicans are destined to wander in the political wilderness for 40 years any more than the 2004 results foretold a similar story for the Democrats. In part, this is because Obama won not on the basis of any particular set of ideas or overriding political or governing philosophy so much as on his ability to present himself as an agent of “change.” As I’ll show in another post, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, she likely would have won by a similar margin of victory.  In short, this was a Democratic year not because of what Democrats stand for, but because of what the Republican administration did for the previous 8 years. There was no single issue or cluster of issues separating the two parties ideologically in a way that caused a fundamental shift in voter allegiances, as is usually the case with a realigning election.  This was not an election that turned on an issue equivalent to slavery, or currency based on gold or silver, or the role of government in the free market.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that the political winds will necessarily reverse themselves again in four years to favor Republicans. The biggest obstacle to regaining the presidency, I argue, is the failure to attract women voters. In 2008, according to exit polls, women voted overwhelmingly for Obama over McCain, 56-43%. In contrast, the two candidates essentially split men.  This is a gain among women voters of 10% since 2004, and is the largest gender-based differential in a presidential election since 1996, when women supported Clinton 54-38% over Bob Dole (with another 7% siphoned off to a 3rd party candidate). (To be sure, Obama also gained 10% among men from Kerry’s performance in 2004, but it only brought him even with McCain among these voters).  It is also the 5th presidential election in a row, and 7th of the last 10, in which Republicans received less than 50% of the women’s vote. Of perhaps greater concern, the 2008 results reverse the trend evident in the two previous presidential elections, in which George Bush, largely on the basis of security concerns, had cut into the traditional Democrat edge among women, gaining 8% between 2000 and 2004.

The media has made much of Obama’s gains among young (18-29 year old) and African-American voters. But African-Americans comprised only 13% of voters in the last election (about a 2% increase over 2004), and the 18-29 year olds were but 18% of the vote. In contrast, women constitute more than half (53%) of voters (I’m ignoring overlap among the demographic categories for the moment). They thus represent the single biggest voting bloc (assuming, of course, that women can be viewed as a voting bloc – more on that below) in the electorate.

What can Republicans do to cut into this gender gap? First, it is important to realize that the gap is not due to party differences regarding what the media often describe as “women’s” issues: abortion and reproduction rights, equal pay and workplace discrimination, child care, etc.  Instead, the difference is primarily due to Democrat’s greater willingness to support government action to protect the less powerful in society: children, the poor, the less educated, etc.  Women, more than men, are motivated to vote based on these issues.

If Democrats “own” these issues, however, as voting in recent presidential elections suggests they do, might the Republicans cut into this gap through other means?  Might they play their own version of identity politics by running a woman at the top of their ticket in 2012?  And, if so, isn’t Sarah Palin the ideal candidate?

Yes and No. Yes, it could be that by running a woman at the top of the ticket, Republicans might make some inroads among women voters. But it’s not clear to me that Palin is the ideal candidate to do so, at least not based on the 2008 results. Those of you who have followed my posts throughout the campaign season remember that Palin’s selection by McCain to be his vice presidential nominee prompted an initial surge in support among women voters for the McCain ticket. Indeed, it was the only moment in the entire general election that McCain actually led Obama in polls. But in the end, Palin proved to be a very polarizing figure, in large part, I would argue, because the McCain campaign used her in the traditional vice presidential candidate role – as partisan attack dog.  Although she helped bring the social conservatives back into the Republican fold, her strident attacks on Obama undercut, I think, her ability to reach out to disaffected Clinton supporters, particularly women who in the end voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama.

This is not to say that Palin’s choice was a mistake – in fact, the exit polls suggest the opposite: McCain rolled the dice and it paid off, although the payoff was perhaps less than it might have been. Thus, 60% of respondents said Palin was not fully qualified to be president, and they went for Obama 82-16%.  Thirty-eight percent said she was qualified, and they voted for McCain 91-8%.  (This is almost the mirror image of Biden’s numbers; 66% said he was qualified, and 32% said he was not). However, as I suggested back in September when Palin was chosen, vice presidential picks are rarely consequential in terms of their impact on the presidential vote.  Biden’s selection, for instance, appears to have had almost no impact on Obama’s support.  However, Palin’s pick proved more influential than most previous V.P. picks (certainly more than Biden’s); fully 60% of voters said it influenced their vote. Of these,  7% of voters said McCain’s choice of Palin was the most important factor in how they voted, and they broke exactly along the lines of the overall presidential vote: 52-47% for Obama.  Fully 33% of voters said Palin’s selection was an important, if not the most important, factor in their vote, and they went for McCain in much greater numbers – 52-47% – than did voters as a whole. Another 20% said it was a minor factor in their vote, and they also went for McCain by 2 to 1, 66-33%. In short, among those voters (60% of the total number of voters) who mention Palin’s selection as influencing their vote, McCain did much better, winning this group 56-43%, while losing those who did not consider Palin’s selection at all when voting by 65-33%.  In other words, when voters factored the Palin choice into their vote, they were more likely to support McCain.  Obama won only among the 7% who said Palin was the most important influence on their vote, and even here he did no better than he did among voters overall.

In short, the exit polls numbers indicate that Palin was a net benefit to McCain; voters who used her selection as a factor in their vote were much more likely to vote for McCain than those who did not.  (Of course, we always have to be careful about inferring causality when identifying correlations of this type.)  However, even if we accept that Palin helped bolster McCain’s support – and the exit poll evidence is consistent with this claim – it doesn’t appear to be the case that she boosted his support disproportionately among women.  Keep in mind that Obama’s gain among women was no bigger than his gain among men, compared to 2004, so it is possible that Palin’s impact was a wash, in terms of gender.

Unfortunately, exit polls numbers do not provide data regarding the breakdown of support for Palin by gender.  They do reveal, however, some differences among women voters that suggest what Palin must do to win back women voters in 2012.  To begin, McCain did about equally poorly among women with children as among those without (57-41 Obama compared to 56-43%)  Interestingly, McCain won the father’s vote 50-48% – men without children went for Obama 51-48%. When we look at marital status and the vote, we see almost no difference between married men and married women – except among married men and women with kids.  Married fathers support McCain, while married mothers back Obama.  However, McCain lost “working women” badly, 60-39%, while just about breaking even in the “all other women” category (70% of voters) by 50-48%.  (Keep in mind that if we control for race, however, we see that McCain actually won white women by 7% – still a far smaller margin than his winning margin of 16% among white men.)

What does this suggest for 2012?  That the “women’s” vote is not as monolithic as one might think.  In fact, there are differences among women based on marriage, children and work status.  This suggests that if Palin is to gain traction at the national level during the next four years, then, she is going to have to broaden her appeal by playing up her hockey Mom credentials to win over mothers with children, while downplaying her social views that may cost her support among educated, single working women.  It may be, however, that Republicans would do far better by choosing a candidate – man or woman – who can make a credible case that her or his policies on issues like health care, education and the economy align more closely with women voters’ views on these issues than they would by playing identity politics.

Or they could nominate Condi Rice!

What Palin must do tomorrow to “win” the debate

The media frenzy over the Biden-Palin vice presidential debate suggests that this event could have a significant impact on the presidential race. Pundits, primed by Palin’s shaky performance in the Katie Couric interview, are poised for a Palin train wreck that will all but doom the McCain campaign.  In fact, however, Palin’s performance almost certainly will have no impact on the election at all – unless Palin takes my advice.  If she does, there is a slight chance she could boost McCain’s electoral chances. But her performance almost certainly cannot hurt him.  And Biden’s performance will be largely irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential race.

Why is this? Despite the media hype, historically vice presidential debates almost never have a significant impact on the election. More often than not, the perceived “winner” of the debate ended up on the losing ticket.  Remember Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated put down of Dan Quayle in 1988?  Reacting to an effort by Quayle to compare his Senate service with Jack Kennedy’s, in order to counter charges that he lacked the experience to be Vice President, Bentsen memorably responded: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy: I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”  The audience erupted in cheers as Quayle appeared momentarily stunned. Less well remembered is Quayle’s response: “Senator, that was uncalled for” which also led to cheers from the Quayle supporters. Initially, the exchange was not viewed as very significant, but after constant repetition by media, it became the defining moment of the debate and cemented the view among pundits that Bentsen had cleaned Quayle’s clock. If so, it had very little impact on the election; Bentsen could not even carry his own home state of Texas in the general election as the Bush-Quayle ticket trounced the Dukakis-Bentsen pairing, Bentsen’s debate “win” not withstanding.

If presidential debates are rarely game changers – and the first Obama-McCain debate clearly was not – vice presidential debates are even more meaningless.  And, despite the media hype, this will almost certainly be true tomorrow – unless Palin ignores the advice that her supporters are undoubtedly sending her way and instead listens to me.  Pundits are convinced that for her to “win” this debate, she needs to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the issues that a president will likely confront than she has to date, in order to counteract the perception that she is an intellectual lightweight who lacks the experience to hold higher office.  This is precisely the wrong advice.  There is no way, in the limited time she has to prepare, that she can master the volume of information expected of her to the degree that her opponent has. History suggests that debaters who over prepare invariably sound scripted and less authentic.  Ronald Reagan – the Great Communicator – fell prey to this in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984.  His debate team crammed his head with statistics, and his performance suffered. In the second debate, responding to the plea to let Reagan be Reagan,  he went off script and performed much more effectively.  Palin must do the same. Biden has spent 35 years in the Senate and she cannot hope to equal his grasp of the issues any more than Obama could match McCain’s knowledge of foreign policy.  But Biden is irrelevant to this debate. Much like Obama in the presidential debate, there is a much greater potential upside to Palin’s participation tomorrow than there is for Biden, who is already a known quantity.  Palin is not.  But she needs to ignore the temptation to try to meet the media expectations by demonstrating her mastery of the issues.  It is an impossible and self-defeating task.  Instead, if this debate is to be more than a media circus – if it is to benefit the Republican ticket – she needs to focus on her core audience: the Republican base and, most importantly, disaffected Clinton supporters and independents, particularly women.  Her opponent is not Joe Biden – it is Barack Obama. She must never lose sight of this. At every opportunity, she must turn this debate into a contest between her and Obama.  Palin must go off script and stay on the attack. Here is what she must say if this debate is to matter:

“In the last several weeks, I have come under increasing scrutiny regarding my experience and preparation to serve as Vice President.  My credentials – my speech, my background, my family, my clothes! – all have been held up to extended scrutiny.  Just yesterday the New York Times ran an extended article discussing my wardrobe!  I don’t shy from this – I expect it.  But I do ask that this same standard of scrutiny be applied to our opponent Barack Obama. Some of you in the audience – particularly those who supported Hillary Clinton – understand what is going on here.  It is the old double standard.  Women, to succeed, simply must be twice as good as men. That’s not a complaint – that’s a fact. Consider my opponent. If elected, Barack Obama would be the least experienced of any modern president, bar none. He has less executive experience than Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Clinton or even President Bush. He served fewer years in Congress than Truman, Kennedy, Johnson or Ford. He even has less executive experience than I do! He has never run anything in his life. In his short time in the Senate he never passed a single piece of significant legislation.  His only qualification for office – his only one – is a speech he made at the Democratic convention that attracted the attention of the Far Left of the Democratic Party. But somehow the media has turned that inexperience into a virtue – as a proof that he will bring change to Washington.  I, on the other hand, despite having much more governing experience, am deemed not quite ready – not quite good enough. Women out there have heard this line before – in boardrooms, on Wall St., in industry, law, medicine, and politics – “we’d love to promote you, but you just don’t have the experience necessary to handle the responsibility.”  And if we try to get that experience by charting a career-centered path, we are accused of being not feminine enough because we have shirked motherhood and raising a family. If we step off the career track to raise a family, we are condemned as not being ambitious enough.  We cannot win.

I understand this.  But I don’t accept it. All my life I’ve confronted these obstacles – I’m confronting them now.  I chose to raise a family when I was told it would hurt my political career. I’ve gone to PTA meetings, baked the cookies, roused the kids from bed – and I continue to do so as Governor of Alaska. You know what that means – you understand what it is to be a mother and hold a fulltime job. You understand the sacrifices it entails, and the roadblocks to equal opportunity that must be overcome. And those roadblocks won’t end – the double standard won’t be eliminated – until you do something about it.  John McCain has given you the opportunity that Barack Obama denied his party – a chance to make real change – to send a signal that the glass ceiling has finally been shattered.  All it takes is for you to stand up and say “enough” and pull the lever for the McCain-Palin ticket. Words and promises are no longer enough – you need to take action.  The Democratic Party has once again sent the message that you are a second-class citizen. They had the chance to truly change politics in America, and instead they reverted to the safe route.  Look at the man over there behind the podium – does he represent change?  I think not.

Send a message for real change.  End the double standard. Break the glass ceiling.  Because if you don’t do it now, who will?”

That’s the message Sarah Palin needs to get across tomorrow.  Her target audience is not the media, not the pundits, and certainly not Obama’s supporters. Right now John McCain is winning the vote of men, but losing women to Obama by 9%.  For McCain to win this election, Palin must peel some of that support off, particular among low-income working class women in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Demonstrating knowledge of arcane policy details is not the way to do it.  Demonstrating empathy and an understanding of their values is.  This is not an election about abortion, stem cells, or other moral values. It is about education, health care, and jobs. Palin needs to spend less time cramming for a test, and more time being Palin – honing her message and reaching out to the disaffected Clinton voters.

If she can do this – if she can swing even 5% of these voters into McCain’s column, she will have won this debate, no matter what the pundits say.  But to accomplish this, she needs to ignore almost every bit of advice the pundits have sent her way this last week.  She needs to largely ignore Joe Biden, who is in an almost impossible position.  Biden cannot help the Obama ticket – he can only hurt it.

Can she do it?  It’s highly unlikely. But it may be one of the few chances left to change the dynamics of this race which to this point favor Obama.  To do so, Palin needs to ignore the media pundits and let Palin be Palin.

The use and misuse of the Internet: Banning books or banning blogging?

The Use and Misuse of the Internet to Vet Political Candidates

Earlier I warned that Sarah Palin had yet to be fully vetted by the press or by the bloggers who have increasingly taken on this vetting role. Since my warning, I have been inundated by emails from many of you who have forwarded the list of books that Sarah Palin supposedly sought to ban from the Wasilia Public Library while she was that town’s mayor.  Because there is no accountability, denizens of the blogosphere are free to hurl charges at anyone, under the pretext that the “main stream media” (MSM) is simply too timid to address the issue. Once in a great while they happen to hit pay dirt, as when they exposed holes in the sourcing for a CBS News story regarding George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.  But for every story they break, there are countless others that are completely or partially fabricated.  For example, soon after Palin was announced as McCain’s VP choice, I received several posts, based on bloggers’ accounts, indicating that Palin’s youngest child was in fact not hers, but was her daughter’s.  This appears to be a completely fabricated story. Some of you may recall just prior to the 2004 presidential election that a rumor regarding reinstituting the military draft suddenly made the internet rounds.  That also proved to be false.

This brings us to the latest rumor now burning through the internet: the list of books that Palin supposedly wanted banned.  A quick perusal of this list should set off alarm bells in anyone’s head – Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary?  The Living Bible?   Now, I have no doubt that in her capacity as mayor, Palin might have inquired as to who had the authority in Wasilia to remove books from the public library. She might even have done so in response to an inquiry from a concerned citizen.  But did she actually seek to remove every book on this list from the public library?   I suspect not. Instead, my guess is that an enterprising blogger took an existing list of banned books and simply appended it to the story regarding Palin’s inquiry regarding book removal.   In this vein, it may interest you to compare the list circulating in this email with the list of books that at some point in American history someone tried to remove from a public library somewhere.  See:


Notice any similarities?  They are, in fact, identical.

As for the alleged book-removing incident, the NY Times reports it this way:

Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

Note that Palin took office as Mayor in 1996.  So the alleged-book removal incident took place within her first two years in office – not later than 1998.  Now look at the publication dates on books on the list circulating by email that she supposedly sought to remove.  I love Harry Potter, particularly the 4rth book in the series: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  But it was published in 2000 – at least two years AFTER the alleged book removal incident.  Yet it is included on the list of books she supposedly sought to remove!

We see, then, that this internet story is clearly false in some respects – something a good journalist with a little sleuthing would easily discover.  But denizens of the blogosphere are usually more interested in pushing a point of view than in uncovering facts.  They are partisans, working for a cause, and often willing to fabricate stories to achieve that end.

This latest rumor simply reinforces my point that the blogosphere has changed political discourse in this country, and not always for the better.

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.