“There are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves, ‘Who is this man?’ and ‘Can we trust this man with the presidency?’ ” – Fred Thompson on John McCain, September 2
This was the most effective line of the entire Republican convention: a ringing affirmation of John McCain’s authenticity and a not-so-subtle indictment of Barack Obama’s insubstantiality. What’s left of this line of argument, however, after John McCain picks Sarah Palin for vice president?
Palin is an admirable and formidable woman. She has energized the Republican base and single-handedly unified the Republican convention behind McCain. She performed spectacularly in her acceptance speech. Nonetheless, the choice of Palin remains deeply problematic.
It’s clear that McCain picked her because he had decided that he needed a game-changer. But why? He’d closed the gap in the polls with Obama. True, that had more to do with Obama sagging than McCain gaining. But what’s the difference? You win either way.
Obama was sagging because of missteps that reflected the fundamental weakness of his candidacy. Which suggested McCain’s strategy: Make this a referendum on Obama, surely the least experienced, least qualified, least prepared presidential nominee in living memory.
Palin fatally undermines this entire line of attack. This is through no fault of her own. It is simply a function of her rookie status. The vice president’s only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment’s notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates.
So why did McCain do it? He figured it’s a Democratic year. The Republican brand is deeply tarnished. The opposition is running on “change” in a change election. So McCain gambled that he could steal the change issue for himself — a crazy brave, characteristically reckless, inconceivably difficult maneuver — by picking an authentically independent, tough-minded reformer. With Palin, he doubles down on change.
The problem is the inherent oddity of the incumbent party running on change. Here were Republicans — the party that controlled the White House for eight years and both houses of Congress for five — wildly cheering the promise to take on Washington. I don’t mean to be impolite, but who’s controlled Washington this decade?
Moreover, McCain was giving up his home turf of readiness to challenge Obama on his home turf of change. Can that possibly be pulled off? The calculation was to choose demographics over thematics. Palin’s selection negates the theme of readiness. But she does bring important constituencies. She has the unique potential of energizing the base while at the same time appealing to independents.