John McCain certainly rolled the dice when he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Her instantaneous rise to well-known status (as a celebrity for some and a target for others) may rank as one of the most abrupt introductions to national political prominence in history. The last several vice-presidential picks, winners or losers, were choices with a certain amount of name recognition behind them: John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush … even Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro had some level of national exposure before being tapped as running mates. Because of the intense reaction to her selection, both positive and negative, and the obvious political gamble that McCain took in choosing her, the last several weeks have been even more interesting than the previous 18 months.
Democrats had a particularly bad reaction to Palin’s selection, and while most of the arguments concerning her qualifications and the motivations behind her being chosen are legitimate, the severity and consistency of their attacks caught me by surprise. Much of McCain’s opposition decided early on that Palin had to be defined, and there are at least a couple of main reasons as well as pros and cons to the tactics that were used.
Reason 1) Sarah Palin was (and to a large degree still is) a complete unknown. While her selection and initial introduction by the McCain campaign rallied the Republican base and gave McCain his first lead in the polls since securing the nomination, most Americans had no idea who Palin really was, what she stands for and if she would make a good vice president. Democrats seized the opportunity to define her as an extremist and as extraordinarily unprepared for the job.
Reason 2) Fear. Democrats felt compelled to keep up the attacks on the number-two position on the GOP ticket because her selection genuinely energized many Republicans, at least for a short time. And she genuinely scared Democrats. Could a small-town mayor and short-time governor from one of America’s most distant and least populous states actually swing the election? Many Obama supporters apparently believed she could, so they opened fire on Palin — from fair points about her record to risky critiques of her family and personal life. Obama’s faithful had reason to be concerned: in choosing Palin, McCain was making an open bid for disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters.
Though the overall premise of that strategy is flawed, there will be some voters who support McCain simply because of who Palin is and what she represents. Some will be women who see McCain as more sensitive to gender issues or simply want to see a woman in the office. Some will be men who are attracted to her fiestiness or her looks. Some will be complete idiots who believe her ability to field-dress a moose or her photo op with an automatic weapon qualify her for the vice presidency. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker praised Palin, calling her the “perfect storm of God, Mom and apple pie.” Any way you slice it, there were demographic advantages in choosing Palin, and Democrats pounced on her immediately to try to offset those advantages.
Pros) As Peg Britton noted in her blog last week, Democrats seemed to be at least somewhat successful in branding Palin. Her negativity ratings shot up considerably, although there’s almost a guarantee that anyone who is brand new to the national scene will have relatively neutral numbers to begin with and the positives and negatives will develop after they become more well-known. But Democrats effectively branded her as inexperienced, unprepared and extremist. Democrats were also effective in pointing out how carefully the GOP is handling Palin — she’s given very few interviews, taken minimal questions from the press and been sequestered for all but a few seconds of her hastily arranged meetings with foreign leaders.
The more the public learns about Sarah Palin, the more questions they seem to have. The McCain campaign is not being incredibly forthcoming with answers, and the Democrats continue to press her as a liability and a concern. Overall perceptions seem to be trending toward her being too risky to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Cons) Democratic attacks on Palin did leave a bad taste in some voters’ mouths. It’s unclear if the sympathy that was generated by the deluge of criticism from the left will impact her overall image, but charges of media bias and sexism were rampant as the Democrats escalated their arguments from questioning her record and experience to questioning her dedication to her family. The media of course reported on all of the talking points coming from the left and kept Palin in the spotlight for over two solid weeks — definitely a disadvantage to Democrats.
It was also risky for Democrats to question Palin’s experience. The candidate at the top of their own ticket has been criticized since he started running for president about his lack of experience. It seemed like a non-starter for Democrats to question her experience, although serious reservations about her preparedness have continued among Democrats and Republicans alike.
All in all, the pros for the Democrats seem to be outweighing the cons, and as Sarah Palin becomes more well-known, their criticisms are being validated to a certain degree. And the question still remains: is she ready to be the vice president? As I wrote in a comment on another blog a few weeks ago, I think that Palin was an awful choice, motivated by purely tactical thinking.
If experience was truly important to McCain, he would have chosen someone who had done more than govern one of the smallest states in the United States for just shy of two years, and who had done more than be the mayor of a town the size of Colby, KS, prior to that. Not to knock on Colby Mayor Ken Bieber, but I don’t think a few months in the Governor’s mansion in Topeka would prepare him to be President of the United States. And I don’t think Sarah Palin is prepared, either. I’m confused as to how her “control of a National Guard unit,” as many GOP pundits have touted, somehow makes her a great pick. It doesn’t. Control of Guard units doesn’t make you a foreign policy expert or a diplomat, and that’s what our situation in the world calls for at this time. I feel far more confident in a Vice President Biden’s ability to do so, given that he was negotiating arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union when Sarah Palin was in junior high.
Arguments made in favor of her experience and ability to do the job since I wrote that in late-Autust haven’t been any better. She’s apparently better prepared than any senator due to her “executive experience.” She’s a reformer because she fired a chef and tried to sell a plane on eBay. She’s got foreign policy credentials because, as Palin herself said, “[when] Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It’s Alaska.”
Her “executive experience” is laughable. Drop the BS — her 20 months in Alaska’s governor’s mansion (many of which were charged to taxpayers as “travel days”) can’t match Joe Biden’s 36 years in the Senate, or John McCain’s 26 years in Congress, or even Barack Obama’s three years in the U.S. Senate and eight as a state senator. So she fired a chef. Big deal. I actually wouldn’t be real keen on publicizing my willingness to fire people considering our current economic situation. Her much touted sale of an unnecessary government plane on eBay is unnecessarily spun into a flat-out lie by the GOP — in fact, she couldn’t sell the plane on eBay and ended up selling it at a loss via conventional methods. And she should have gracefully accepted defeat on the “I can see Russia from my house” argument instead of stubbornly continuing to defend it as she did in a painfully bad interview with CBS’ Katie Couric.
As I mentioned earlier, Palin has done only a handful of interviews (and softballs from Sean Hannity don’t count), and the most recent with Katie Couric was actually hard to watch. While Palin struggled for answers, I struggled to understand what she was trying to say. U.S. News and World Report columnist Robert Schlesinger hit the mark when he desribed her interview as a “talking points machine gone out of control. Or magnetic poetry that you have on your fridge – in fact, you can try it at home. String together key words and phrases like ’shore up the economy,’ ‘reduce tax rates,’ ‘healthcare reform,’ and ‘trade’ and see what kind of Palinisms you can create.”
You can watch both segments of Palin’s interview (or read the transcripts) with Couric on CBS’ Web site and judge her performance for yourself. My initial skepticism about her has been validated by her performance (or lack thereof) over the past several weeks, and now, many conservative pundits are expressing their doubts as well.
Kathleen Parker, the same conservative columnist who praised Palin immediately after her selection was announced, is now publicly questioning the selection. Parker wrote, “If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself,” and, “If Palin were a man, we’d all be guffawing, just as we do every time Joe Biden tickles the back of his throat with his toes. But because she’s a woman — and the first ever on a Republican presidential ticket — we are reluctant to say what is painfully true.”
In fact, Parker is calling for Palin to drop out of the race so that McCain can choose a respectable running mate: “Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first. Do it for your country.”
Now a prominent conservative and one-time supporter of Palin is questioning whether the Alaska governor should just stay at home with the kids. Maybe that’s sexist, too. And if questioning Palin is sexist, count other prominent conservatives such as David Brooks, George Will and David Frum as male chauvinists. Their columns all make arguments similar to mine, but in much more well-developed and well-argued forms.
David Brooks writes, “Sarah Palin has many virtues. If you wanted someone to destroy a corrupt establishment, she’d be your woman. But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.”
The noisy backlash against Palin from Democrats and leftists over the past several weeks has been possibly noisier than would be typical because of the rush to dissect such an unknown quantity. But make no mistake, Democrats and liberals fear Sarah Palin. They fear her mile-wide, inch-deep appeal to varying demographics, they fear her stance on the issues and they fear that she could very well end up being the 45th President of the United States should McCain manage to win the election.
From a more detached perspective, I’m just deeply unimpressed with Palin. The choice was purely tactical and poorly made, and nothing that has been revealed about her in the past month has either endeared me to her experiences or convinced me that she’s capable of doing the job. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps her performance at next Thursday’s debate will be poised, polished and informed. Perhaps not.
Shortly after Palin was selected, columnist David Frum wrote, “this is the future of the Republican party you are looking at: a future in which national security has bumped down the list of priorities behind abortion politics, gender politics, and energy politics. Ms. Palin is a bold pick, and probably a shrewd one. It’s not nearly so clear that she is a responsible pick, or a wise one.”
It’s no wonder that she scares Democrats, and unfortunately for the McCain campaign, her fear factor is growing to levels that frighten more than just the opposition.