Why Palin Passes the Test

Why Palin Passes the Test

By Steven Stark - September 20, 2008

Ever since John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate, she has been the focus of the campaign -- whether it's been igniting the GOP base or inviting parodies on Saturday Night Live (where Tina Fey, a real doppelgänger for the Alaska governor, kicked off the show's season debut with a much-discussed impression this past weekend). Unfortunately, if you're a Barack Obama partisan, this attention has played right into the Republicans' hands, by taking focus off of both McCain and Obama.

By and large, voters will judge Palin to be qualified for the vice-presidency because historically they find almost anyone to be qualified for the vice-presidency. Like politicians, they don't think much of the office. (James Nance Garner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice-president from 1933 to 1941, once compared the post to a "pitcher of warm piss.") And, apart from standards for the office, Palin's persona is the type that appeals to a large number of Americans.

Palin may not have much of a résumé, but that only puts her into a long tradition of vice-presidential selections, many of them successful (at least in an electoral sense). There was Republican Spiro Agnew in 1968, himself a one-term governor, who began his acceptance speech by saying, "I stand here with a deep sense of the improbability of the moment." Or Barry Goldwater's 1964 choice, obscure New York congressman Bill Miller, whose claim to fame was that he later went on to appear in an American Express commercial. ("Do you know me?" he began. No one did.)

Going back even farther, there's Thomas Wheeler, a New York congressman who was the convention choice in 1876 to share the GOP ticket with Rutherford B. Hayes. When informed of the selection, Hayes asked, "Who is Wheeler?" Or Democrat Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana in 1912, who provoked the head of the ticket, Woodrow Wilson, to complain, "But he is a very small-caliber man!"

Is competence an issue? When Henry Gassaway Davis was put on the Democratic ticket in 1904, he was 80 and labeled "the reminiscence from West Virginia." He entered the history books for his immortal analysis of the problems with fiction. He never read novels, he once said, because "the people in the stories are not real." And perhaps the vice-president most relevant to Palin watchers today is Chester A. Arthur, who got to run as James A. Garfield's number two in 1880 (and later acceded to the presidency), despite having gotten canned two years earlier as customs collector of New York for loading up the office with his buddies.

The no-win debate

Even if the standards for the office of vice-president have risen in recent years, many in the electorate are likely to be drawn to Palin. That's because she conforms to an old, very popular American type -- the tough, marauding, frontier woman.

Put another way, Palin is something of a modern version of Annie Oakley (even though, admittedly, no one ever asked Oakley to sort out a Wall Street crisis or deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions).

Hers is a persona that usually doesn't attract educated Easterners. In fact, when Irving Berlin was asked to help write a musical based on Oakley's life (Annie Get Your Gun), he needed a fair amount of persuasion -- because he had never even heard of her. Besides, he told the show's backers, he didn't write "hillbilly" music.

But despite her pre-feminist roots, Oakley remains an American heroine -- a self-educated cowgirl born in a log cabin -- who learned to outshoot almost any man in the West. She ended up touring the country with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and, when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the government turned down her offer to lead a volunteer group of sharp-shooting women into the war.

Interestingly, like Palin, Oakley had a running battle with the press -- successfully suing William Randolph Hearst and others for contending falsely that she had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. (In another forecast of things to come, Hearst hired an investigator to try to dig up dirt in her past. He found nothing.)

The bottom line is that, as long as the Democrats and media focus on Palin, the more they ignore McCain, much to the GOP's delight. Any debate about Palin's qualifications, even if Obama wins that argument, is a loser for him in the long run because it deflects attention from the real issues in the campaign -- issues that can help the Dems in November.

By campaigning against Palin, the Democrats are trying to run against an American archetype, competing for an office that the public thinks almost anyone can fill, even a modern Annie Oakley. Not a great idea.

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