About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Thoughts on Obama's Speech | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | A Strange Night »

What the Heck is McCain Up To?

That seems to be the question this Labor Day. The Palin pick surprised everybody, and the reaction to it has not been moderate. Analysts tend either to be pleased or pissed.

I want to move beyond their back-and-forth. Too much of it seems to depend implicitly upon whether picking Palin makes McCain a hypocrite, given his attacks on Obama. I don't think that is a particularly helpful discussion, as everybody will probably answer it based upon which candidate they had been supporting. So, in an effort to analyze the Palin pick without getting into the scrum, I offer a few considerations.

First, this pick is not a Hail Mary pass, as was Bob Dole's selection of Jack Kemp. Kemp fit on a Dole ticket as well as Ronald Reagan would have fit on Gerald Ford's '76 ticket. Unlike the '96 ticket, there is a natural affinity between McCain and Palin. Both stand athwart the same forces in their party, both do so for the professed sake of the public interest, and so both are insurgents. Palin challenged the powers that be in the Alaska Republican Party. McCain challenged the powers of the national GOP.

In other words, Palin appears to be a younger, female version of John McCain. She embodies his best qualities. This is why the pick cannot be dismissed as mere pandering. There are compelling reasons to pick Palin in addition to her being a woman. Was her gender a factor? Sure, but I don't think it was the principal factor. If it were, he would have gone for Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Kay Bailey Hutchison, or others.

In fact, of all the candidates mentioned at various points in time for McCain, only Bobby Jindal fits the maverick/reformer image as well as Sarah Palin. This is why Jack Kelly - an incisive columnist at my hometown paper and certainly no fan of identity politics - was trumpeting her back in June.

Second, the issue of Palin's qualifications is complicated. The left is enthusiastically attacking her credentials. The right is just as enthusiastic in its defense. There's no clear-cut winner here. If she were clearly unqualified, McCain would not have selected her. If she were clearly qualified, she probably would have been the GOP's presidential nominee.

Here's my take on her qualifications. Historically speaking, she has enough experience to be veep. We can talk about what happens if McCain drops dead on day one, but that sounds tendentious to me - like asking what President Obama would do should Vladimir Putin declare World War III on the day of Obama's inauguration. It sounds smart to people already set upon voting against Obama, but everybody else will probably just roll his or her eyes.

Does this mean her qualifications will be a non-issue? Not necessarily. She has fewer qualifications than most veeps, that's for sure. Her thin resume could hurt her if and only if she performs badly on television. This, and nothing else, is what matters. The people who could vote Republican this year will give her a chance. Jonathan Alter, Andrew Sullivan, and other pro-Obama commentators in the MSM are not going to sway these people, at least not directly. These analysts could frame the persuables' reactions should they decide they don't like her. So, it's up to Palin.

For those who are skeptical that she can pull this off, remember - Obama did! While Obama might be special, he's certainly not singular. Lots of people can give good performances on television, even if they have had little practice. Furthermore, unlike Obama as of a year ago, Palin has already been through a real statewide election. Two, in fact - first against incumbent governor Frank Murkowski, then against former governor Tony Knowles. Obama managed to look so poised without such practice.

The key word for Palin, as it was (and is) for Obama, is poise. She appeared poised at her announcement, which was her most important day. If she appears poised during her nomination acceptance address, poised on the stump, and poised in the debate - her qualifications should be a non-issue, and she'll help McCain deliver his message.

Third, I think many people are surprised to discover that McCain intends to carry a positive message into the fall. Many of us had assumed that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama, with McCain serving as an inoffensive backup for those too unsure of the junior senator from Illinois. Just a few weeks ago, I used this logic to argue that McCain should select Mitt Romney, as he was the best among the viable picks to go after Obama.

John McCain clearly does not share this view of the race. By picking Palin, he is signaling that he intends to win this election not just by attacking Obama, but by offering an affirmative message of his own.

What is that message? It is that he represents change, too. It's not the "drastic" change that Obama represents, but rather "common sense reform" (scare quotes reflect what we will hear from McCain-Palin, not non-partisan reality). McCain is indicating that he, too, is a candidate whose election would alter the status quo - not as much as Obama's election would, but alter it nonetheless.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider the two tickets. The fresh but inexperienced candidate is at the top of the Democratic ticket; the experienced pol who, even after all these years, "calls it like he sees it" is at the bottom. With the GOP, it's reversed. These tickets are mirror images of one another. The message to voters from McCain? If you're unhappy with the status quo in Washington, but are worried that Obama-Biden would be too drastic a change, vote McCain-Palin.

So, the public gets a pretty sophisticated choice this year. It's not a choice between change versus more of the same. It's a choice between degrees of change. I like this. And while I have no idea how Palin will play, I like that McCain believes he has to offer something positive and new to win.

I still think Obama would have been best served by selecting Hillary Clinton as his nominee. However, given the choice not to select Hillary, I think he made a wise move by picking Joe Biden. As I noted above, Biden is a guy who tells it like it is. So, he adds heft without damaging Obama's core message. The Democrats have a well-balanced ticket. John McCain responded by balancing his ticket well, too.

All things considered, I like these tickets. Together, they give the public a clear choice. Plus, neither offers the public what it certainly does not want, the status quo. People complain all the time about how our two-party system stifles real debate and fails to offer the public a distinct choice. I am optimistic that, when all is said and done, Obama v. McCain will be one that the naysayers won't point to. When they whine about our "failed politics," they'll have to conveniently forget 2008.

-Jay Cost