On August 29th, in a historic move that surprised pundits, Senator John McCain announced his selection of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin (pronounced PAY-lin, not PAH-lin) for his vice presidential running mate. The reaction from the left was immediate and visceral; feminists claimed the choice was patronizing, liberal bloggers sardonically thanked McCain for the giving them the election and the Obama campaign lashed out, calling the governor inexperienced and a pawn of Big Oil.
These criticisms have missed the point entirely. Palin was not chosen because of her gender or conservatism — for that McCain could have easily turned to Kay Bailey Hutchinson or Tim Pawlenty — she was chosen because she is a reformer with considerable upside among blue-collar voters.
As a Washington outsider who has built her political career by fighting nepotism, corruption, and corporate influence in her home state, she reinforces Senator McCain’s strained image as a party maverick. As a hockey-mom with a unionized commercial fisherman for a husband, she lends John McCain a populist appeal that his military service alone couldn’t provide.
She strengthens John McCain’s claim that as president he will end the cronyism and excess that have characterized the past seven years. Her presence on the ticket undermines the catcalls from the Obama camp that a McCain presidency would be Bush’s third term, and instead she offers John McCain the chance to recast the Republican brand, to run as a new kind of Republican, to remake his party as the representatives of the little man, standing against the Ted Stevenses, Jack Abramoffs, and the K Street politics that have poisoned both Democrats and Republicans.
In an election year destined to reward the candidate that can assume the mantle of change, Palin’s reform credentials will provide McCain the ability to position himself as a transitional politician, cleaning house and pushing his party to embrace new policies and demographics.
Along the way it doesn’t hurt that Palin is a woman, but her gender alone will be insufficient to win over a significant fraction of female voters. However, if the Obama camp is not careful, if their criticism of the governor is too strident, they’ll risk igniting the identity politics that would lead former Clintonistas to vote Republican. Some recent attacks, such as complaining that Palin won’t have the ability to care for her family and be vice president at the same time are particularly bone-headed in that they’re practically tailor-made to provoke the sort of debate on gender that Obama does not want.
Other attacks, such as critiquing the governor’s relative newness to politics, have merit, but are full of danger as well. Calling out Palin’s light resume not only gives the McCain camp opportunity to fire shots back on Obama’s inexperience, but also allows them to make sly accusations of a double standard at work. If Sarah Palin is just as seasoned as Barack Obama, then the complaints about her experience really boil down to Obama having the “look” of a president and Palin having the “look” of a beauty queen. One can imagine John McCain, with feigned indignation, wondering aloud to reporters in the back of his campaign bus why Barack Obama believes only men have the necessary gravitas to be president.
The real minefield will be the vice-presidential debate on October 2nd, when the belligerent and gaffe-prone Biden will square off against the eye-catching Alaskan governor. If the Delaware senator manages to put his foot in his mouth — as was his wont during the primaries — and says something chauvinistic, there is a real risk that Hillary PUMAs (Party Unity My A**) will use it as their excuse to stay home during the election, or worse, vote Republican.
Constitutionally the VP’s role may be to assume the office of the presidency in the event of the current office-holder being incapacitated, but on the campaign trail the most important role of the veep is that of attack dog, lobbing mud at the opposing candidates while the top of the ticket does his damnedest to appear above the fray. Palin is a skilled political mind, and while playing negative has not been her modus operandi in Alaskan politics, her recent speech at the Republican National Convention demonstrates that she is more than qualified to go on the attack.
In the coming months, expect the governor to draw some unflattering comparisons between herself and the would-be Democratic president. She, the red-blooded, blue-collared, selfless mother of five; He, the elitist, unpatriotic, Ivy-League egoist. She, apple pie and motherhood; He, arugula and self-promotion. She, the Discovery Channel’s “The Most Dangerous Catch”; He, the Home Box Office’s “The Wire.” She, Bruce Springstein; He, Britney Spears. Throw in Palin in a Chevy truck and play some Lee Greenwood in the background and the campaign ads write themselves.
To those who see American politics divided along an axis of Liberal-Moderate-Conservative, the Palin choice does not make sense. John McCain is a rare candidate who has a legitimate chance at courting the political center: why throw it away by choosing a conservative vice president? The answer is that the left-right political spectrum misses important details in how Americans define themselves politically.
“Moderates” should be viewed not as the ONLY swing group but as one swing group among many, including blue collar working whites, hispanics, catholics, and secular voters. Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, and Tim Pawlenty may have patched holes in the McCain candidacy, but would have done little to expand the Republican party into these growing swing demographics.
McCain’s selection of governor Sarah Palin is not a cheap gimmick or desperate long shot gamble. This represents a long awaited fundamental shift in the Republican’s long-term electoral strategy, and if the Democrats do not watch themselves, it is a shift that could pay dividends very quickly.
Keith Yost is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division.