Is Senator John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate going to sink whatever chance he had of winning the presidency? A lot of commentators across the spectrum seem to think so. But there’s method to his madness.
Until a week ago, when McCain announced his pick (it was not a total surprise, by the way; the Intrade.com prediction market ranked Palin the third likeliest choice), the election was going to be a contest between the past represented by the 72-year-old alumnus of the Hanoi Hilton and the future in the person of Senator Barack Obama.
The Democrats would argue, successfully, that McCain offered nothing more than a de facto third Bush term. Obama’s charisma would do the rest, trumping Republican charges of callowness and inexperience.
With Palin, McCain changed the narrative. If you really want change in Washington, he said, what you need is a pair of anti-establishment “mavericks” – a journalistic tag each has earned quite separately — who put “country first”, ahead of party.
In essence, the Arizonan has taken the change theme Obama used to derail Senator Hillary Clinton and put it on steroids with the help of a latter day Wild West folk heroine – Annie Oakley springs to mind — to pull off his own upset. Here is Obama, until now the most exciting US politician in a generation, being painted with some success as the status quo. The political theatre is matchless.
Palin, whose political resume – small town mayor, state oil and gas commissioner and first-term governor — is even shorter that Obama’s, obviously weakens the Republican ticket’s experience argument. Actuarially, an American who just turned 72 has a 15 per cent chance of dying within four years. This would favour a safer pair of hands in the number two slot.
But McCain thinks the risk worth taking. He may be right. To win, he has to distance himself from his own party and its deeply unpopular incumbent president, while at the same time energizing the Republican base and building a winning coalition that includes independents and Democrats in key states. A tall and contradictory order. Palin and her story help in ways that none of the more conventional choices could.
This, we were reminded in her acceptance speech on Wednesday night, is one vivid human being. The jokes say a great deal about her charisma. Alaskan wolf packs, it is said, give Sarah Palin first dibs on their kills. We’ll never know who would win a cage match between Chuck Norris and Sarah Palin because no cage ever constructed can hold her.
She’s a tribune of the people. Before McCain tapped her, Alaska newspapers called her a latter-day Joan of Arc for bringing a corrupt Republican establishment to heel while seeing that ordinary Alaskans reaped the benefit of the state’s enormous energy reserves.
An opponent of abortion who chose to bring to term a Down’s syndrome baby last April, Palin will mobilize social conservatives who might otherwise have stayed at home. She is authentically blue collar. Her husband is a commercial fisherman and oilfield worker who belongs to the steelworkers union. She has a son headed to the front in Iraq. Her problems – a pregnant teenage daughter, a worthless son-in-law – are the problems that make country America’s best-selling music format. She knows her way around a gun and can dress a moose when she’s shot it.
She does not pretend to be a rocket scientist, but she understands energy policy and is on the side of the 70 per cent of Americans who support greater exploitation of Alaska’s huge oil and gas reserves, which Democrats (and until lately McCain himself) have opposed. That’s a good place to be these days.
Susan Estrich, who helped Bill Clinton win the White House, thinks Palin could attract up to 30 per cent of the vote that went to Hillary in the primaries. Some of those voters will be women. A lot of them will be the white men who helped Hillary beat Obama in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. These guys were always going to have a tough time voting for Obama. Now they have an alternative to make them salivate.