I’ve spent the day in two odd, contrasting worlds. The first was the final leg of the drive back from Denver to Seattle, wherein (since virtually nothing else is available on the radio dial) I listened to red-meat conservatives like Rush, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Laura Ingraham wax uber-enthusiastic over John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Then I got home, and I’ve been reading endless progressive blog posts and comments crowing over what a weak and disastrous pick Palin is.
On this one, I think the conservatives have it right. Palin is a brilliant pick, and instantly makes McCain more competitive in a way few VP picks could have done (or have ever done in the past). Here’s why.
Palin has two obvious weaknesses: her complete lack of experience and an ethics question about her (specifically) and anyone associated with the Republican Party in Alaska (more generally). Progressives are overrating both. Palin’s strong narrative as a reformer taking on Alaska’s corrupt old boy network will overwhelm her own love affair with Big Oil (the source of much of her state party’s ethics misery) and the relatively minor personnel matter she’s being investigated for. Moreover, it reinforces McCain’s own (inaccurate and manufactured) image as a reformer who’s battled against DC’s corrupt corporate culture.
Meanwhile, Palin’s thin resume does help the Democrats by contradicting that line of attack on Barack Obama. But it’s a non-issue for Palin. When was the last time someone declined to vote for a president because his running mate was inexperienced? The closest recent example was Bush Sr. picking Dan Quayle in 1988, and despite Quayle’s embarrassing lack of gravitas, Poppy won. Rather easily.
And Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle. She’s a perfect fit for McCain’s campaign in several respects:
* She’s an extreme social conservative, someone the party base can enthusiastically mobilize around — which they weren’t doing for McCain. He just picked up a ton of volunteer energy.
* But Palin’s likeable and doesn’t come off as wingnut-crazy — meaning she can appeal to low-information independents in a way that, say, Tom Coburn never could.
* Her gender doesn’t just court (OK, pander to) disaffected Hillary supporters. It also negates some of the “historic” zeitgeist surrounding Obama’s campaign, because her election would be ground-breaking, too.
* Her personal story is compelling on any number of levels: blue collar, working mother, part-Eskimo husband, Downs Syndrome infant (that she refused to abort), son in Iraq. It helps counter the Obamas’ very appealing family narrative, which was on full display in Denver.
* And she’s physically attractive. Which matters. Ask (hetero) women if they think Obama is cute. (Hint: he is.)
As a bonus, Palin even helps lock up Alaska’s three electoral votes for McCain — believe it or not, polls had Alaska in play, between Obama’s appeal to independents and the troubles of Ted Stevens, Don Young, et al.
Note that all of these attributes are about McCain getting elected — not what Palin would actually bring to the job of Vice President of the United States. She is no Gore or Cheney; she is not being expected to play a significant role in a McCain White House, the way Biden surely would for Obama. But that doesn’t matter unless you win, and McCain just increased his chances of winning in a way that picking Mitt Romney or any of the other names that were bandied about never would have.
It’s easy to mock McCain for, essentially, picking a trophy VP. Except that Sarah Palin is only a means to the trophy McCain really wants. With her selection, he has served notice that Obamamania or no, McCain will continue to be a formidable candidate right through November.