I was travelling on business yesterday, so had some time to reflect on the pick before posting my reaction. My immediate reaction to the announcement was relief. Given the options that McCain was considering, at least he chose someone who is apparently conservative both socially and fiscally. It seemed like a decent political play to undecideds, while at the same time shoring up the base, something that McCain always has to be concerned about. But as the day wore on, it didn’t hold up. Palin seems a perfectly charming, All-American success story. There is very little not to like in her story. But the notion of plucking a governor with less than two years of experience that would count for anything (unless your a fan of movies like Dave) to serve as Vice President to a 72-year old President is troubling, to say the least. The pick comes with enormous risk, both as a matter of politics, and more importantly, governance. As a political matter, the Obama camp must be breathing a sigh of relief that it can now run ads that say, “Is SHE ready to lead?” It effectively blunts any criticism that Obama is not ready for prime time, which was only the most effective line of attack that Steve Schmidt had developed for McCain. After all, her career in the “city council” and as mayor of a town few outside of Alaska have ever heard of doesn’t exactly prepare her to preside over National Security Council meetings in the President’s absence, to serve as a close adviser to the President on counterterrorism issues, or to have the nuke “football” at her side 24/7. And I say this as a guy who 1) grew up in a similar sized town in Louisiana that no one outside of Webster Parish has ever heard of, and 2) spent the 2005-07 as Counsel to the sitting Vice President – so I have some perspective on both from whence she came and what the job can involve. That lack of experience is a political liability for the very reason that it is a real liability.
The choice also says a lot about McCain. First, that he is a bit desparate. McCain likely thought it would be difficult to make a splash with a conventional Republican sidekick. Changing the subject from Thursday’s Obama-thon would be difficult with Mit Romney or Kay Bailey Hutchinson (who would have been an awful choice anyway) by his side. The choice of Palin certainly gives us all something new to talk about. And she is fresh, smart (as far as I can tell from a brief time studying her), enthusiastic and energetic. But it is a bit of a political Hail Mary pass. Second, that he is one arrogant SOB. McCain is essentially telling the world that he doesn’t really need a Vice President. It is hard to imagine Palin playing the same sort of role that modern Vice Presidents like Gore, Bush, Cheney, or Mondale played. Rather, the Office would seem poised to return to the “proverbial warm bucket of p***” category. McCain has thus made a purely political play without regard for the governance concerns. And how could he really have a good idea of how she would govern? My understanding is that he only met with her once before choosing her.
Sarah Palin is a remarkable American success story — the kind of person that most Americans would love to befriend. She also is a huge political gamble, one that blunts the most effective line of attack on Barack Obama. There are substantial questions in the minds of many Americans about Barack’s ability and experience to lead the country. But if John McCain has said that a year plus of statewide office (plus some small town politics) is good enough, why isn’t state legislature and a couple of visits to the floor of the U.S. Senate? There is tremendous upside to the gamble, given Palin’s story and charisma. But it will be hard to fend off the experience attacks when they come in earnest.