Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin: A Roveian Strategy?

Most commentators believe that by selecting Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Senator John McCain has made either the most brilliant or reckless decision of his political career. Palin certainly carries a lot of obvious risks. She is a first-term, young governor of a thinly populated, non-mainland state. Prior to that she was a mayor of Wasilla, an obscure and tiny town in that same state. Her academic credentials pale in comparison to those of the other candidates and of those who have moved on, like Clinton and Romney. Although web chatter has long suggested that Palin could make the ticket, most reputable political commentators rejected such musings as pure folly.

Well, folly has become reality. McCain's choice has shocked the media and blogsphere, and people are now combing through Palin's limited background to discover who she is. Currently, we have learned that she is a mother of five children, the youngest of which is a few months old and has Down Syndrome. She and her husband, who dropped out of college, eloped because they could not afford a wedding. She was runner-up for Miss Alaska, after winning the Miss Wasilla competition that year. She is pro-life and pro-gun, favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (unlike McCain), opposes having the polar bear on the endangered species list, and is under "investigation" for allegedly pressuring a subordinate to fire a state trooper involved in a nasty divorce and custody battle with her sister. She believes that public schools should teach both evolution and creationism, and she is unsure whether global warming is "manmade." Palin, like McCain, also has a reputation for rooting out corruption, even if it means challenging her own party. In Alaska, she is known as the "Barracuda" for her toughness, a name she first earned playing high school basketball. Like Obama, Biden, and McCain, Palin, a self-proclaimed "hockey mom," opposes same-sex marriage, but she vetoed legislation that would have prohibited the state from providing benefits to same-sex partners of state employees. And the information on Palin continues to emerge.

Democrats have generally ridiculed Palin's candidacy. The Obama campaign, for example, said that McCain wishes to put a "former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." The campaign later backpedaled from that statement and issued a new one praising her candidacy as indicating that "old barriers" are falling in politics. Representative Jim Clyburn likened Palin to Dan Quayle, Bush, Sr.'s intellectually challenged Vice President, who was constantly ridiculed during the 1988 campaign and during his term in office. After I learned of the announcement, I immediately emailed friends proclaiming that McCain had just picked "Danielle Quayle" as a running mate. Finally, Newsweek writer Jonathon Alter, who has been openly supportive of Obama, predicts that Palin's candidacy will "belly-flop."

Despite my own serious doubts about Palin's qualifications, I believe that the Democrats will harm their own chances in November if they continue to mock Palin and depict her as a lightweight. According to popular accounts, McCain selected Palin in order to siphon off disgruntled Clinton supporters from the Democratic party. Although Palin's praise of Clinton in her acceptance speech supports this assertion, McCain probably does not believe Palin will attract many of Clinton's supporters. For the most part, pro-choice, pro-glbt, antiwar, public health care-supporting women will not vote for McCain, regardless of their bitterness over Clinton's failure. On the other hand, Palin help McCain lure politically independent white women and conservative Democrats, who are either pro-life or who do not centralize abortion as a political concern. If these women are angry about Clinton,would like to see a woman hold high office, or cannot bring themselves to vote for a black man, then Palin might have even more appeal. A Gallup analysis indicates that while McCain has a large lead over Obama among independent white men, the two are basically tied among independent white women. In a tight contest, a shift of a few points among this latter group could make the difference, particularly in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Missouri, where Obama failed to attract many white voters outside of progressive urban areas.

Furthermore, Palin apparently excites Republican religious conservatives, who have always had a strained relationship with McCain. Although Palin's veto of antigay legislation suggests that she has moderate political leanings, her political record is indisputably conservative. Accordingly, Palin could help shore up support for McCain among evangelicals and other socially conservative voting blocs. This same group helped put Bush over Kerry in 2004 and could potentially work again this year. Early signs indicate that the Republican party's conservative base has responded warmly to Palin, citing her strong opposition to abortion. Furthermore, McCain has reported that he raised a whopping $7 million the day he announced Palin's candidacy. An emboldened conservative base could prove destructive to Obama in November.

Democrats should also retire their suicidal belief that the public wants a president (or vice president) with great intellectual depth. The last two elections refute that notion. And despite the parallels between Palin and Quayle, Democrats must remember that Bush and Quayle won -- and they might have won again if Ross Perot had not run. If Palin comes across in the debates and on the stump as competent and charming, then she may pass the bar set by the United States electorate. To the extent that Democrats construct Palin as a lightweight ex-beauty queen, an "adequate" performance could actually make her look impressive.

Finally, Democrats must avoid portraying Palin in sexist terms, or they risk angering and driving away women voters. Lingering bad feelings over Clinton make this particularly important. Some male television commentators and bloggers have already asked whether Palin, a mother of five, will have enough time to raise her family and serve as Vice President. I do not recall ever hearing a male candidate asked a question like this. Others have queried whether Biden will have to treat Palin softly in their debate in order to prevent being perceived as too tough on a young woman ("girl"?). Would the same question apply if McCain had selected a young man? Should McCain go soft with Obama because who is only two years older than Palin? Democrats must even address Palin's experience issue - which is a real concern - with sensitivity, because they rejected Clinton's critique of Obama's thin resume, and because Democrat John Edwards had only two years of Senate experience (his only political position) when he ran for Vice President with John Kerry in 2004. If Democrats can accept the limited political experience of Edwards and Obama, then why not Palin? On the experience question, McCain has clearly ceded this as a point of attack. Palin neutralizes Obama's weakness in this area, and McCain's latest ads have asserted that Obama lacks substance, not experience.

Perhaps McCain's attack on Obama's experience was really a Roveian ruse, designed to deter Obama from selecting a young, change-oriented Democrat as a running mate. Rove himself argued in June that Governor Kaine of Virginia was too inexperienced to serve as vice president, even though he has about the same political experience as Palin, whose candidacy Rove has now praised. By pressuring Obama to go for a more senior and "safe" Democrat, Rove and the Republicans could ensure that McCain would grab attention by picking a younger, charismatic, reform-minded female upstart. Furthermore, by picking Biden, Obama has neutralized a key component of his campaign: that voting for "Bush's war" demonstrates a lack of "judgment." Biden, like Clinton and McCain, voted for the war. Now, the campaigns will likely focus on who can end the war. The fact that one of Palin's sons will soon go to Iraq as a soldier will help blunt Obama's arguments that McCain will keep the war going for "100 years." It's easy to imagine Palin in a debate saying something like "As a mother of a son in Iraq, I want that war to end as soon as possible and will do whatever it takes to make that happen."

The Democrats had a surprisingly unified convention, and according to most pollsters, Obama enjoyed a nice post-convention bounce. McCain has grabbed the attention with his shocking selection, and we will soon figure out whether his gamble will work for him. As the public continues to scrutinize and debate Palin, the Democrats must decide to take her candidacy seriously, for she brings more to the Republican ticket than a vagina. McCain picked Palin to accomplish a complex set of political goals, including mobilizing the conservative wing of the Republican party, attracting moderate and conservative women, helping to put the maverick status back in McCain's brand, energizing his dull campaign, and re-awakening the beleaguered Republican party. Palin now faces the difficult, if not impossible, task of convincing voters in a very short amount of time that they should place her within a heartbeat of the presidency. She will have very little room for error. And while Palin's candidacy looks, at first glance, like a nice gift for the Democrats, Obama and company must take Palin seriously, or they risk squandering their opportunity to win. Whatever happens, the next two months will likely present many other surprises and moments of excitement.

Update: A new CNN poll shows that the race is a dead heat again. Presumably, Palin has helped neutralize Obama's bounce.
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