The great question of the week, which I am unfortunately only now getting around to starting to answer, is what to make of John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Let me offer here my take on a few of the other early points here.
I really was unprepared for how euphoric my reaction was to McCain’s choice, and there are really two reasons for that.
The first, which I touched on Friday – it seems so long ago now – was the way the McCain campaign pulled this whole thing off. Whereas Obama had built up suspense on his pick while leaking a 3-man ‘short list’, promised his supporters they’d be the first to know via text message, and then had to deal with a late-evening leak that trumped the 3am text message and left his announcement of Biden over the other two finalists broken up over two news days, McCain managed to stun everyone Friday morning, picking a candidate whose name had never made the veepstakes lists except as a dark horse and favorite of the blogosphere. It was clear that many of the leaks made beforehand had been deliberate misdirection, including the floating of Tim Pawlenty, the long-time favorite, the night before. One way that McCain maintained operational security on this was by using Pawlenty, Romney, Lieberman, Ridge, Cantor, etc. as his surrogates and traveling companions, but not Palin. It also turns out that the McCain’s many houses came in handy in getting Palin in and out of Arizona for vetting unnoticed. The Democrats had been gearing up to attack a bunch of other candidates – Palin wasn’t even on that “Next Cheney” website, and even though she actually has a lot in common with Cheney in terms of her upbringing, her public image is very much the opposite of what the Democrats have been looking to run against – and they were caught utterly flat-footed and forced to serially revise their plan to attack her. Obama’s initial press release started by attacking her inexperience, the one place Obama can’t afford to go, and also ripped her as being a tool of Big Oil, thus proving they hadn’t even paid attention to her actual record in Alaska.
The sudden announcement of Palin swept Obama’s convention speech right off the front pages instantly – for four days now, Palin and not the presidential matchup, has dominated the news. The choice of Palin was vintage McCain, the bold stroke, and you can’t help but be impressed with how he carried it off; the man knows how to keep secrets and use timing to maximum effect. That kind of skill is very encouraging to watch.
B. Energy In The Executive
The second reason for the initial euphoria is that it’s been such a long time since Republicans and conservatives have had something really exciting to cheer for. At the beginning of February 2005, we held the commanding heights of politics – a President freshly re-elected with the first popular majority since 1988, the largest GOP Congressional majorities in a century, democracy on the move in Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia, the possibility seeming at hand of legislative progress at home and victory over our enemies abroad.
We can discuss at another time how all that unraveled, but while there have certainly been victories along the way – most notably the stunning turnaround in Iraq since early 2007 and the 2005-06 confirmations of Justices Roberts and Alito – and had our share of fun with the Democrats’ current leadership, nothing has come easily for Republicans and conservatives since early 2005. We’ve been engaged in a protracted rearguard action, a sort of political equivalent of the Chosin Resovoir, and chosen as our leader a man long mistrusted by the party. The mood on the Right for a long time now has been one of grim determination to ride out the storm and hold on for better days down the road. When it looked like Pawlenty, I spent most of Thursday night talking myself into the idea that it was wise for McCain to take the safe, don’t-make-waves choice who would basically get out of McCain’s way. But the selection of a VP nominee who is young, energetic, a fresh face from outside the Beltway, glamorous, and undeniably conservative on a fundamental cultural level is fun. McCain may be startlingly energetic for a man his age with his disabilities, but there’s a level of enthusiasm that Palin brings to the trail that’s already infectious. It really is difficult not to get swept up in that.II. Identity Politics
One obvious question about Palin is the gender issue: we she picked because she’s a woman?
Look, Palin’s record in Alaska is such that even if she were a man, she’d certainly have already made a sufficient impression to be marked as a rising star in the GOP. But I don’t believe that McCain would have chosen her if she’d been male; he would have gone with a more veteran governor like Pawlenty or looked elsewhere. Republicans hate playing identity politics, but where elections are concerned, it’s the world we live in, and the game the Democrats have played in this election; if they are going to nominate the icon of a group that makes up 11% of the electorate and could not possibly be more solidly Democratic, we may as well go after a group that makes up a majority of the electorate and includes a lot of swing voters. And, again: that sort of ticket-balancing calculus has always been the province of the bottom half of the ticket, the difference being that in years gone by the attention was more to geographic rather than demographic balance.
Does 2008 sound the death knell of the two-white-guys ticket that has been the staple of presidential politics since 1789? Maybe, or at least it will probably be a rarity in the future. Depending on how things turn out this November, it seems likely that the next Democratic ticket will include Obama and/or Hillary, and the next Republican ticket will include Palin and/or Bobby Jindal.
Totally random thought: if McCain wins, will Palin’s idiosyncratic fashion – the glasses, the beehive hairdo – become a national trend? It has nothing to do with politics, just wondering.
III. Be Careful What You Wish For
I offer a word of caution to my fellow conservatives. Palin is undeniably an appealing person with bedrock cultural conservative credentials. She may well end up being the next great conservative leader. But once the initial flush of infatuation has worn off, we will be looking more closely at how she carries conservative policy goals into effect. And we have a long, long line of examples of public officials – Mike Huckabee, Condi Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind – to remind us that an appealing personality and/or biography and the ability to sell some parts of the conservative message does not necessarily equate to someone who will build a record conservatives will be happy with.
IV. The Secret Weapon
Finally, let’s remember that at the end of the day, politicians are not just paper credentials and position papers. And probably Palin’s greatest asset to the ticket is that she comes across as fundamentally a normal person. Of the four candidates on the national tickets this year, we are actually blessed not to have anyone of the Kerry/Gore variety – all four are to one extent or another likeable and/or charming people. But what you would not call the other three is normal – McCain is basically an action hero, a Jack Bauer/Han Solo/Indiana Jones figure, the kind of guy most Americans know more from the movies than from their day to day lives. Biden, for all his affability, is someone if you met him not knowing who he is, your first reaction would be “this guy must be a U.S. Senator.” Obama, when you get him away from his cultic acolytes, his TelePrompter and his branded logos and trappings of grandeur, is at heart an academic. All of them really did have ambitions of public glory from an early age. But Palin has the rare Reagan touch of having fallen into politics rather gradually and backwards, and even Reagan was always to some extent a performer; Palin is probably the most relatably normal person on a national ticket I can remember, and maybe the closest to a normal person on a national ticket since Harry Truman. Obviously that, too, is not without its downsides; she has to convince people that she is ultimately capable of managing the superhuman demands of the job of the Presidency if needed. But don’t underestimate what Palin’s personality will bring to this race.