Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain-Palin 2008: The odd couple

On Friday, his 72nd birthday, Arizona Sen. John McCain finally made his move for a running mate, again frustrating those within the Republican party, and blindsiding many, when he picked Sarah Palin, the one-term governor of Alaska, a rock-solid evangelical Christian conservative, to join him on the Republican presidential ticket.

It’s an exceeding strange choice, from a campaign that’s had something of a lock on strange for months. Despite its intent to energize a listless conservative base, and maybe play to disaffected women voters, it’s a wrong choice that has more to do with who she’s not than who she is.

There's a lot to recommend about Palin as a populist from the left field of the right wing: the former mayor of Wasilla (pop. 9,000) and a self-styled supporter of gun ownership and drilling in the ANWAR region, she's a self-described "hockey mom" of five children, one of whom was diagnosed with Down's syndrome. A former beauty queen and part-time sportscaster, Palin is a former union member and a true believer in every touchstone of the social conservative cause.

But McCain's choice of Palin dismantles the one claim McCain has had over Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker synthesized it well this morning: “Senator John McCain spent the summer arguing that a 40-something candidate with four years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience was not ready to be president.

“And then on Friday he picked as his running mate a 40-something candidate with two years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience.”

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By choosing Palin to be the first woman on a GOP ticket, McCain seems to have played into a first-blush sense of being a copycat, of trying to co-opt the meme of change that Obama has made a cornerstone of his campaign. It's a hasty bid to call into question Obama's credentials as a supporter of advances for women.

And there are questions about whether she’s the right woman. All campaign long, McCain has doubled down on the idea of making a vice-presidential choice that would reflect wisdom, a shared world view, and political experience that— if he failed to complete a first term — would be pretty much equal to his own.

Palin as a statement of wisdom? Experience?

Here’s one way to get your head around how bad this looks for the McCain campaign: When McCain announced her as his running mate, Sarah Palin had been in office as governor of Alaska for 635 days.

Barack Obama, already a sitting member of the U.S. Senate, accepted the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday, 566 days after announcing his candidacy in February 2007.

Sixty-nine days separate their high-profile, bullet-point timelines. This is McCain’s threshold for fitness to assume the presidency.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, on “Countdown,” nailed it: “Sarah Palin makes Barack Obama look like John Adams.”

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McCain gets no real distinguishing benefit from Palin’s reformist life story. Palin has been around her version of the American block, has created her own unique and compelling personal narrative — just like Obama.

The problem for McCain is making Obama’s narrative more unacceptable and out-of-the-mainstream than Palin’s own. Note to Team McCain: When your running mate’s favorite meat is moose, she’s not exactly in the beef-eating American mainstream.

Bigger problems lurk. Besides having compatible philosophical talking points, Palin and McCain share what seems to be a basic component of the McCain campaign: flip-flops on the issues.

In 2006 Palin initially expressed support for GOP Sen. Ted Stevens' much-maligned $398 million pork-barrel project, a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, the so-called “bridge to nowhere.”

In October 2006, Palin told the Anchorage Daily News that "I would like to see Alaska's infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now, while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

Palin's support for this pork boondoggle ended only after it was clear federal funding for the project wasn't coming. Put another way: Palin was for the bridge to nowhere ... until she was against it.

Stevens was indicted in July on seven counts of failing to report $250,000 in gifts received from a corporation and its CEO on his Senate financial disclosure forms. Stevens pled not guilty and requested a trial date before the 2008 election.

At Friday’s announcement, Palin took credit for telling Congress “thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, I said, we’d build it ourselves."

A straight-up reversal of position in less than two years, and one you can count being an issue from now til November.

And already complicating her straight-talk pitch is an editorial posted Friday on the Daily News-Miner of Fairbanks, Alaska, stating that Palin is flat-out unqualified for the vice presidency.

You have to ask, who does this choice reach beyond the conservative, evangelical, right-wing base — those voters who will likely turn out for McCain, holding their noses if necessary, regardless of their differences with him?

The bigger challenge is wooing voters who aren’t part of that conservative base. Baker in The Times: “His campaign now needs to convince the public that it can imagine in the Oval Office a candidate who has spent just two years as governor of a state with a quarter of the population of Brooklyn.”

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If the choice of Palin was meant to reach into the demographic of older women voters previously conceded to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it fails utterly. Palin’s ardently anti-choice position on abortion rights is fundamentally at odds with those women voters. Clinton’s full-throated convention call to those voters to back Obama seriously undercuts any attempt to pick them off now.

McCain’s choice of Palin almost certainly would have had more traction, more of a galvanizing effect on that chunk of the electorate, if McCain hadn’t waited so long to make it.

If he really wanted to be the maverick he’s claimed to be, he would have made this pick in June. He could have further snagged the Democrats’ process of selecting Obama, roiling the waters with white women voters by announcing Palin earlier in the summer. It would have given the country more time to get to know her.

If this was purely a McCain gender play, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas would have been just as good on that narrow basis, and better in terms of presence in the Senate and gravitas on national issues. Philosophically, Hutchison would have much in common with McCain. If McCain really meant to make the case as a maverick, the choice of Hutchison would have pointed to a willingness to break from the doctrinaire pack — to truly burnish his reformist brand with a running mate whose moderate position on social issues, including abortion, would broaden the party's reach and appeal.

And picking Hutchison — or just about anyone else — would have meant a lot less of the work the McCain campaign is obligated to do from now until November: Telling the American people who Sarah Palin is. When McCain should be focused on sharpening his distinctions with Obama and laying out his path to American governance, much of the campaign’s energy and resources will have to be invested in laying out her biography and relevance for the voters.

We’ll watch with great interest as the McCain campaign tries to do with Sarah Palin in 60-odd days what it’s said the Obama campaign hasn’t done in a year and a half: make the nation comfortable with the candidate.

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With Palin aboard, McCain may have wounded himself on several fronts: He loses the battle for experience bona fides, or at best faces a stalemate. He undercuts the sharp differences he’s tried to make between Obama’s life narrative and the nation’s by picking a running mate whose personal past bears its own exotica. And he’s misinterpreted the politics of those 18 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, assuming they’re transferable by virtue of gender alone — a sad appeal to a herd instinct that modern women voters want no part of.

With the Republican convention set to start on Monday, hurricanes permitting, the McCain-Palin tandem finally distills the Republican ticket: experience and change, in interchangeably dubious quantities. Conservatives have long wondered whether McCain was experience they could believe in; now the nation’s voters more generally will wonder if Palin represents change they can believe in. Once they figure out who she is in the first place.

Much about the newly-minted McCain-Palin ticket is a matter of preaching to the choir, shoring up the support of the conservative base. Team McCain has work to do with establishing its newest member in the public eye, work to do in getting what the McCain campaign needs to win in November: a bigger choir.
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Palin: PFC Christopher Grammer, US Army (public domain). Wading moose, Ted Stevens, Brooklyn from satellite, Kay Bailey Hutchison: all in the public domain. Xcel Energy Center: Rx Strangelove (public domain).

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