A couple months ago when my colleague in the office next door, Dr. Jim Melcher — a specialist on American politics — was talking with a student about McCain’s likely VP picks. I stuck my head in, “if he’s smart, he’ll go with Sarah Palin.” Jim just laughed at me. I’m going to be contrarian here. I think it was a good pick, though also a pick that shows that John McCain knows he’s in deep trouble, and he needs to try something dramatic to change the nature of the game.
She doesn’t have foreign policy experience, but such experience is overrated. Presidents surround themselves with advisors, and the key is to have good judgment and good people at your side. Experience is over-rated. John McCain is nearing his mid-seventies, has a history of cancer, and is more likely than most Presidents to either die in office, or be incapacitated for some length of time, perhaps even during a crisis. He is saying, correctly, that it is not a risk to have someone as inexperienced as Sarah Palin in a position to take over. He trusts her judgment.
Note, however, that this also means that the Republicans can’t attack Barack Obama for his lack of experience or foreign policy expertise. Her experience in Alaskan politics is less than his in Illinois and national politics, yet she is qualified to be President — that’s one thing each candidate agrees on, the Vice President must be qualified to step into the role of the Presidency. The idea that we don’t know enough about Obama, or that his resume isn’t deep enough to be President is no longer a valid Republican argument, and thus if they try to make that argument at their convention, they’ll be opening themselves up to counter attacks — such criticisms could be used to claim that John McCain lacks judgment according to Republicans because of the person he chose to be Vice President. Democrats have to feel relieved about this.
Many have thought that this is Obama’s big weakness — why would the GOP all but take it off the table with their choice of Palin? First, obviously, there is the attempt to close the gender gap and gain Hillary Clinton voters. There will be a clear message: McCain is a maverick, an independent thinker, and he has a woman with real world experience and character as his running mate. He’s betting that will look very attractive to those rural voters in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin who still aren’t sure about Obama. Second, McCain recognizes that the force for change in the United States now is stronger than concerns about experience or foreign policy. It is more important to be able to be a change candidate than represent safety. After all, McCain is the ‘old rich white guy’ in the race, and in general a lot of people will see that as by definition safe when compared to a black man named Barack Hussein Obama. He bets Palin can only help create a dynamic that this is the change ticket. There might be a submessage “both tickets have experience plus new energy, the GOP has it the way should be, with experience at the top.” That likely will play well next week in Minnesota.
Will it be enough to counter the extremely successful and dramatic message the Democrats gave in Denver, and now take the road? Probably not. Obama remains likely to have a tremendous advantage in money. That matters. Also, Obama’s army of volunteers to register new voters and get out the vote could provide a dramatic election day surprise, as the polls might severely underestimate Obama’s support. The polls go on demographic traditions and likely voters. Even if they try to compensate for Obama’s efforts, it’s possible that they’ll be off by quite a bit. In a number of states one or two points could shift the state, and Obama could win an electoral landslide. Finally, the number two person rarely makes a huge difference anyway. Biden and Palin were equally brilliant choices, neither candidate hurt himself.
The Democrats need to refrain from being meanspirited in responding to Palin being chosen. Obama is riding a wave of feel good after Denver now, and if they are seen as being petty or sexist (such as calling her, as I read over at Politico, ‘Geraldine Quayle’), that could play into Republican hands. They need to recognize that while Palin isn’t going to be easy to attack, she also does relieve the pressure about Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience. They need to focus on McCain, and hit back against any ‘experience’ attacks by pointing that McCain can’t think it so important, since he (rightly) put someone with little such experience a heart beat away from the Presidency. Given McCain’s age, that’s big!
I also sense Karl Rove behind this pick. He was apparently pushing hard against McCain choosing Lieberman or Ridge. Rove is of the view that the only way the Republicans can win is if they not only have the social conservative base behind them, but also fired up. Palin can do that, she can actually generate enthusiasm for McCain that might otherwise not be there. Even if she doesn’t lure many Hillary supporters, McCain’s problem is really that Obama’s campaign has so much more energy and enthusiasm — things that translate to higher vote totals, more money and more volunteer work. The choice of Palin does show that the McCain campaign knows its in trouble, and it has to gamble a bit to get back in the game. I don’t think it’s enough, but it was a smart move. Because after the drama in Denver, it was beginning to look like McCain risked becoming another Dole.
So it’s Obama-Biden vs. McCain-Palin. We have the match up! This should be a fun election!