Sarah Palin Needs to Do More with What She's Got

Normally the vice-presidential choice is tangential to the top of the ticket. But that may not be the case this year as this election -- a two-year-long odyssey -- has broken a number of rules.

Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was seen as better in many ways than lead man Michael Dukakis. He couldn't save Dukakis. Dan Quayle had the presence of a ventriloquist dummy. But he didn't sink the senior George Bush. Under Richard Nixon, former Maryland governor Spiro Agnew was elected with scandals rattling in the closet. He became the first vice president to resign from office, but his troubles never directly touched Nixon. That president was to have bigger problems of his own.

Al Gore's selection in 1992 with Bill Clinton set a new pattern representing a generational team rather than a geographic or political balancing act. Dick Cheney wields power no other vice president has ever dreamed of. Though consistent with President Bush's direction, he is an independent force no one wants to cross.

Thus far, Joe Biden is fitting the traditional mode for Barack Obama, like it or not. He's so dull it was said a Google search turned up nothing on him. I doubt that, but he's hardly setting the world on fire.

In most of our history, the bottom of the ticket has done well to be a supportive cheerleader and eager attack dog, avoiding outshining or embarrassing the boss.

Then there's Sarah Palin.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, she may be the first vice-presidential candidate, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson for JFK, to lift the presidential nominee over the bar. She is like a made-for-television movie: an obscure officeholder from an obscure state plucked from invisibility to the national spotlight. In politics personality counts -- and that she has in abundance. If diamonds are a girl's best friend, her life stories grace her like a beautiful pendant. She has that political narrative as a fighter of corruption in Alaska, taking on her own party, accomplishing much in little time as governor. Experience as a small-town mayor reminds us America is full of small-town mayors dealing with big-time problems. She has her personal story interweaving a family saga with a passion for the great outdoors.

But the McCain campaign had better pay attention to what she says without a prompter or she'll become just another ordinary number two, one that doesn't lift the ticket and doesn't boost him to the brass ring on election day.

In an outdoor town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Sarah Palin was asked by an audience member to answer concerns about her lack of foreign policy experience. She said: "I think that I'm prepared. We'll be ready. I'll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness. And if you want specifics with specific policies, specific countries, you can ask me. You can even play stump the candidate if you want."

This was a missed opportunity. A wasted chance.

She could have talked about her role as a border governor with Canada. She should have spoken about the unique commerce and trade issues Alaska has dealing with the Pacific Rim countries, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and so forth. There are defense installations in Alaska that she should be as familiar with as our governor in Arizona is with based military facilities. But she has never referred to any of these. With all of the media coverage following her, if she had, we'd know.

If she doesn't pack some substance based on experience she must surely have, she'll fade out like a shooting star. A candidate with limited capacity like Dan Quayle was bad enough, but the first George Bush was in good health so Quayle was unlikely to succeed him in the middle of the term. John McCain has a history of skin cancers and he's older. The chances of a mid-term succession due to death or illness are reasonably greater. Sarah Palin needs to show she could weather a catastrophic transition. She has to do a better job of packaging and communicating her experience when she has those impromptu moments.

History shows us Harry Truman lived up to the challenge, though he was subject to the same media doubts as Palin when FDR suddenly passed a mere 82 days into his last term in office. Please, if elected, let Sarah Palin be more like Harry Truman than Dan Quayle. Consider that when Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt and World War II with zero foreign policy background, he went on to make a series of fateful decisions, from dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, to establishing the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, halting the advance of communism in Western Europe, and overseeing the birth of the United Nations. His conduct of military demobilization post-World War II and the Korean War have been subject to analysis and criticism. But, overall, not bad for someone working off not much more than Midwestern common sense. Sarah Palin would have a Great Northwest version of common sense should the sun, moon, and stars fall on her.

Of course, we'll never know what she's capable of if John McCain isn't elected president.

John McCain had better hope she lives up to voters' expectations in substance as well as popular style. Otherwise, his legacy will be as the fourth Arizonan to try and fail to win the presidency.