“Ford could have won—and McCain just might—if only…” Last week, as we mulled over the pros and cons of various vice presidential choices, was that not our attitude? We accepted the conventional wisdom of an environment shaped by an unpopular incumbent party and an unpopular war. We weighed the probability of regional and demographic strategies as we discussed Pawlenty and Romney, Lieberman and Hutchison. And now we are so distracted by Sarah Palin’s gender that we overlook the real surprise in McCain’s new strategy.
If McCain were to leverage the hesitations of a risk-averse public and narrowly win election as a safe alternative to a young unknown, then he would forever find himself in a storyline where his margin of victory is of the same order as the last vestiges of a racist past. He could at best hope to secure a legacy as a competent caretaker, a mere check on the excesses of an overly zealous socialist movement, and a steady hand in international diplomacy.
With the Palin pick, we now know that McCain has a much greater goal than dying as the 44th entry on a historic list. In the days that follow, we will see him attempt to draw a contrast between a man who accepted the realities of Chicago machine politics and a woman who accepted the challenge of “a cause greater than her own self interest” and defeated entrenched Alaskan corruption. He will present himself as the elder statesman who lends his experience to a new and emerging generation of reformers and citizen legislators pursuing common sense “American solutions” to our present problems, and for whom the infrastructure of both political parties is only an obstacle.
So while we debated how to make the election a referendum on Obama rather than on Bush, the GOP candidate secretly sought to recapture the mantle of change. If he is to be elected, it will be because America chooses McCain.