One phenomenon of this election is the impact of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the campaign. Thursday night’s debate should make it a bit more clear, as we finally get to see and hear the candidate unscripted. At first, it appeared Palin was a brilliant choice, igniting the base and providing an attractive, young, fresh face to the GOP ticket. Now some wonder if McCain didn’t commit a horrible blunder, chosing someone not up to the kind of challenges facing a national campaign. My own thinking on this has changed within a week or so, from it being a smart pick, to a dumb pick, to a kind of GOP anti-Obama. Perhaps by the weekend we’ll know.
Within the GOP, rumors persist that Palin is “clueless,” has bombed debate trials, and some hope they can postpone the debate or maybe cancel it. In fact, McCain’s bungled attempt to suspend his campaign might have been an effort to find a way to scrub the VP debate, since he suggested that be the venue for the first Presidential campaign. Palin’s favorability ratings have plummetted. After all, if she is such a game changer, such a superstar, why is she kept hidden from the press, unavailable to the public, and treated as if she was a fragile flower rather than a pit bull with lipstick? If she does a quality job in Thursday night’s debate, she could put a lot of the worst fears behind her, but right now, the pick is looking more and more dubious.
The New York Times, hardly John McCain’s favorite paper, has reported about his ties to the gambling industry, as well as his own history of gambling. Given that the Palin pick was done on a gut instinct out of a need to do something big, it could well be one of those high stakes rolls of the dice. Apparently he had talked to her only once, and there are still questions about how well she was vetted. There is no evidence that they had in depth policy discussions, or really investigated her capacity to handle media on the national stage. Clearly, she brought early political benefits. She electrified the GOP convention in St. Paul, and helped the McCain campaign turn around major gains Obama received from the Democratic convention in Denver.
But if she’s such a weapon, why have more people seen Tina Fey as Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin herself? Why isn’t she out doing what Joe Biden is doing, chatting with the press, talking to CNN after the debate? Instead, she was the brunt of a joke. After Biden talked one CNN analyst said, “we’d like to have the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin on too.” Another, laughing, “well, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” The others chuckled. It’s well known that she is being kept away from the press on a very tight leash.
When she does talk, she makes gaffes. Now, given all the gaffes Joe Biden has made, famously saying that Roosevelt came on TV after the stock market crash (Hoover was President and there was no TV), why do hers matter more? The answer is obvious. Nobody doubts Biden’s expertise, and every top Republican has expressed respect for Biden, and note that he is well versed in foreign affairs and qualified for the job. He doesn’t have to prove himself to the public, he is known to be competent. His gaffes are thus attributed to his locquaciousness, his tendency to speak before thinking.
Palin, on the other hand, is an untested quantity. After she was chosen, Alaskan newspapers questioned if she was even competent to run Alaska, let alone the US. She has to prove herself to the American public, and so far she’s not even tried to do that. She made a great speech in St. Paul using the teleprompter, but anyone can do that.
To be sure, people vote for the top of the ticket, and Dan Quayle, similarly criticized (though not hidden and shielded the way Palin has been) did not pull Bush the elder away from an easy victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. But while Bush was seen as clearly more qualified and better than Dukakis by most voters, McCain is playing catch up with Obama. If he is to win enough of the undecideds, or turn around the decideds, he has run a campaign that is extremely effective through November. If Palin’s qualifications become an issue, that will hold him back and stymie any momentum he might gain.
On the other hand, dumping Palin, as conservative columnist Kathleen Parker suggested, would be poison to the McCain campaign. Choosing a running mate is the “first Presidential decision,” and admitting he flubbed it would be a bitter pill to swallow. To be sure, they could manufacture an excuse for a change in running mates, but if that comes on the heels of a bad debate performance, it would be transparent. It would be a strong argument that McCain is erratic as the Obama camp contends: gambles on a VP choice, suspends his campaign but does nothing in bailout talks, and then debates anyway after vowing not to debate if no deal had been made. That completely undercuts McCains claims at experience, and in a year where change is desired, experience is a loser.
Of course, Sarah Palin could pull off a brilliant performance on Thursday, and Biden could muff some questions, making all this moot. Reports of Palin’s incompetence are based on rumor and snap judgments about a few interviews and speeches. She can still bounce back.
With the US economy in crisis and the public in the mood for change, it’s ultimately still up to Obama to prove he is up to the job, that people can take a chance on this young, black man with a funny name. So far, he seems to be making progress to close the deal, and if you believe the Obama camp’s claims about their organization and “ground game” in swing states, this could be a landslide.
So right now it’s crunch time. The ball is on the 15 and it’s fourth and goal. There is still time after this drive, but if they give up the ball here, it’ll be difficult to come back. The coach sends in the play. The untested rookie running back is called on to try to make the score. The players are shocked, surely they should pass, or try a more conventional play on 4th and 15! But the play has been called, and on Thursday we’ll see if she scores.