The best-kept secret of the 2008 presidential campaign — at least since last week’s vice-presidential sweepstakes — came to an end with John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain successfully completed the greatest head fake of the campaign, leaving most pundits and supporters believing late last night that his pick was Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
After a tumultuous morning where William Goldman’s adage was proved true (“no one knows anything”), the guessing came to an end. The choice makes sense on multiple levels. The McCain camp has spent the week stirring the pot, playing on the heartstrings of women disappointed by the rejection of Hillary Clinton, first as the Democrats’ presidential nominee and then as the VP pick. In a presidential race dominated by male senators, Palin will have the sole executive experience of the four candidates. And in the battle for “change” there is no candidate who looks more different and comes from further outside Washington than Palin.
His selection is likely to come as a relief to social conservatives who worried that a pro-choice pick was in the offing and to other conservatives who fretted that a Mitt Romney pick would provide a juicy target for the Democrats, who are already strutting their populist rhetoric. How did McCain get to Palin, who was never on the media-created short list of potential candidates?
The choice of Biden almost certainly complicated McCain’s pick. Romney would have exacerbated the “rich guy” problem which was given new life by the flap over McCain’s multiple houses. It seemed too much to have a dozen homes on the Republican side of the ledger, especially when confronting Biden’s carefully cultivated image of a scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania. And Pawlenty might have seemed too ordinary and was sure to be overshadowed and out-talked in a debate with Biden.
Multiple floats and refloats about Senator Joe Lieberman made their way to the surface. Had Karl Rove tried to nix the pick? Would social conservatives revolt? By late in the week the buzz started that it might be a woman, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson or one of McCain’s economic advisers such as Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina. Late Thursday pundits and McCain supporters still were perplexed and uncertain about the choice, a remarkable achievement in this day of leaks. Given the uncertainty and potential for an intra-party battle, the overwhelming early reaction within Republican ranks is an odd mix of relief and outright excitement. The tour de force maneuver to keep the choice secret certainly shut off the buzz from the Obama speech.
Who is Sarah Palin? She is 44 years old, a former mayor, and the first-term governor of Alaska who ran on an anti-corruption platform. She is a strong advocate of offshore drilling. She is the mother of five including a child with Down Syndrome. In her tenure as Alaska governor she has pursued ethics reform, budget reduction, and natural gas development. In short, she is unlike anyone on either ticket and unlike anyone ever to be on a major party’s ticket. Two large questions loom: How will she handle questions about national security? Will she help McCain?
As to the first question, Palin will argue that in fact Obama has no more experience than she does, and that Palin has the advantage of sharing McCain’s views (and thus being right) on the surge, Russian ambitions, and meetings with state terror sponsors. The VP debate against Biden may be dicey, but the McCain camp knows full well that a vice-presidential debate isn’t going to make or break their candidate. In short, McCain is hoping that Palin is good enough on this score for a number two pick against a Democratic ticket headed by a man with virtually the same meager national security credentials.
As to the second, Palin has much to offer McCain. On a non-political level few can doubt her Q-factor. (She will be the first former beauty queen to run on a national ticket.) The daughter of a teacher and mother of five, she has an ebullient personality and an excellent TV presence. The Right will be entranced: a pro-life hunter with a passion for domestic energy development? And in the battle for “change” she has the record of reform and the identity of a complete Washington outsider. Finally, as a lifelong NRA member, an outdoorswoman, and a western governor she may provide extra help in mountain and western states such as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico which are certain to be in play.
On the policy front, Palin can make the case that the Democratic program of higher taxes, more spending, and a government takeover of health care is a proven loser. She will argue that she can bring practical experience from as far outside the Beltway as one can get. And, of course, the presence of a woman on the ticket creates instantaneous excitement and puts into play Clinton voters looking for a new champion.
The pick also tells us something about McCain: he thinks he can win. He was not willing to rock the boat with his conservative base. He can use Palin on offense to make a run at women voters and on defense to blunt the populist attacks from the Democrats. And it shows he understands the need to generate enthusiasm and “newness” in his own campaign. In sum, Palin may prove to be the most exciting pick available to McCain.
The players on both tickets now are set, the battle lines are drawn, and in the weeks ahead Palin will give us a hint as to whether a Washington outsider, conservative reformer, and executive can boost McCain’s prospects. For now, Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief and getting ready for the fight of their lives.