The Economist, like many other Libertarian-minded publications and individuals, has soured on John McCain. One week ago their cover page story was “Bring back the real McCain” and this past week their storyline on McCain was that the man simply has poor judgment. What gives?
What gives is that McCain, above all else is a politician — and an opportunistic one at that. This is certainly the view the BBC audio documentary of John McCain that I profiled last week gives.
It has to be said that the Palin pick was a calculated gamble by McCain, one of the riskiest plays we have seen in U.S. presidential politics — certainly more risky than the Dan Quayle pick by George H. W. Bush in 1988. However, the pick is paying off in spades right now. Palin has been a darling of the media, she gave a thrilling performance at the Republican National Convention and she has taken the spotlight completely off Barack Obama.
But, John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate says more about John McCain’s judgment than it says about Sarah Palin. It was an obvious ploy to shore up his credentials amongst evangelicals of the south, who have fled the Democratic party in droves after the dismantling of Jim Crow by Lyndon Johnson. It was also a ploy to potentially siphon off Hillary Clinton supporters from Barack Obama. Race is still a factor in America, and many of those who voted for Clinton in the primaries may be looking for an excuse to support anyone but Barack Obama. And, most importantly, the Palin pick was a naked ploy to win back the Maverick, change-the-status-quo imae, McCain has cultivated throughout his career. Barack Obama was stealing his thunder and he needed an antidote — think of Sarah Palin as kryptonite to a Superman-like Obama.
But, more importantly, his picking Palin showed McCain — contrary to his reputation — to be a typical politician, yet again willing to sacrifice ideals for votes. He picked Palin to be candidate for the second highest office in the country in a rushed and chaotic process, throwing to the wind arguments about foreign policy credentials and experience. In retrospect, it is obvious that she was not fully vetted and that McCain picked her out of pure political calculation, having only met her once before deciding on her as his running mate.
The Economist says this about her selection:
Mrs Palin was greeted like the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan by the delegates, furious at her mauling at the hands of the “liberal media”. And she delivered a tub-thumping speech, underlining her record as a reforming governor and advocate of more oil-drilling, and warning her enemies not to underestimate her (“the difference between a hockey mum and a pitbull—lipstick”). But once the cheering and the chanting had died down, serious questions remained.
The political calculations behind Mr McCain’s choice hardly look robust. Mrs Palin is not quite the pork-busting reformer that her supporters claim. She may have become famous as the governor who finally killed the infamous “bridge to nowhere”—the $220m bridge to the sparsely inhabited island of Gravina, Alaska. But she was in favour of the bridge before she was against it (and told local residents that they weren’t “nowhere to her”). As mayor of Wasilla, a metropolis of 9,000 people, she initiated annual trips to Washington, DC, to ask for more earmarks from the state’s congressional delegation, and employed Washington lobbyists to press for more funds for her town.
Nor is Mrs Palin well placed to win over the moderate and independent voters who hold the keys to the White House. Mr McCain’s main political problem is not energising his base; he enjoys more support among Republicans than Mr Obama does among Democrats. His problem is reaching out to swing voters at a time when the number of self-identified Republicans is up to ten points lower than the number of self-identified Democrats. Mr McCain needs to attract roughly 55% of independents and 15% of Democrats to win the election. But it is hard to see how a woman who supports the teaching of creationism rather than contraception, and who is soon to become a 44-year-old grandmother, helps him with soccer moms in the Philadelphia suburbs. A Rasmussen poll found that the Palin pick made 31% of undecided voters less likely to plump for Mr McCain and only 6% more likely.
The moose in the room, of course, is her lack of experience. When Geraldine Ferraro was picked as Walter Mondale’s running-mate, she had served in the House for three terms. Even the hapless Dan Quayle, George Bush senior’s sidekick, had served in the House and Senate for 12 years. Mrs Palin, who has been the governor of a state with a population of 670,000 for less than two years, is the most inexperienced candidate for a mainstream party in modern history.
Inexperienced and Bush-level incurious. She has no record of interest in foreign policy, let alone expertise. She once told an Alaskan magazine: “I’ve been so focused on state government; I haven’t really focused much on the war in Iraq.” She obtained an American passport only last summer to visit Alaskan troops in Germany and Kuwait. This not only blunts Mr McCain’s most powerful criticism of Mr Obama. It also raises serious questions about the way he makes decisions.
Irrespective of how Palin was picked, she is working out quite well for the Republicans — they now lead in the polls. The Democrats have been unable to figure out how to get after her and have been quite condescending and snobbish in their efforts to rebut her qualifications for the job.
The Democrats had better watch out at the debates too. Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine recently said, after watching video of Palin’s 2006 Alaska debate performance that one “saw last week that she knows how to wrestle with a TelePrompTer and a prepared text, but Sarah Palin is also very good on her feet.”
Where do I stand? I wasn’t going to vote for McCain anyway — he has long ago shown that he is mostly a political animal and not a true reformer with a temperament for governing. And although I like Palin’s verve and charm, her politics are simply too extreme — I am even less likely to vote for McCain now. I sense many moderates or independents feel the same way. However, the Republican base is now fired up and ready to go like Obama’s supporters.
Whether you like Palin or not, she has definitely changed the political calculus in this election.