Palin: Intriguing But Risky

Washington Matters

Palin: Intriguing But Risky

In a political year of twists, turns, risks and firsts, John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is a fitting finishing touch to the slates that will face off in November. The choice is bold and different and will help highlight McCain's maverick streak because he found a running mate about as far away from Washington geographically, culturally and politically as possible and because Palin has been a bit of a maverick herself since she came to power less than two years ago by defeating a sitting governor from her own party.

It also carries at least a slight whiff of desperation. Sure, McCain gets the GOP's first woman vice presidential candidate and a vigorous fresh face at his side, but McCain also looks like he felt he had  to do something eye-catching. After all -- and this is especially important for a man who would be the oldest first-term president in American history -- he is taking on a running mate who has zero national profile and a resume on national security that is even more slender than that of Barack Obama.

Adding Palin to the Republican ticket provides some extraordinary political symmetry. The Democrats have the first black man at the top of a major party ticket and a sure-footed white guy with long foreign policy and national security credentials. The Republicans have a white, aging but vigorous war hero -- also with substantial foreign policy bona fides -- as their standard-bearer and a vice presidential pick who shatters the party's glass ceiling.

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What's more, just as Obama provides for Democrats a youthful face for the next generation, Palin gives Republicans a way to appeal to the nation's younger voters. And, again just as Obama is the very embodiment of the American dream (a child of modest means who made the most of support from family and society to rise to the pinnacle of power), Palin represents an equally mythic facet of the American character and narrative -- the rugged individualist (a sometime hunter and former commercial fisherman) who beat out more experienced and equally rough and tumble men to become the top elected official of America's last frontier.

Here are some first impressions of the dangers and bonuses that Palin brings to McCain's pursuit of the White House.

On the plus side:
--McCain has managed to be unconventional and daring without risking the ire of the conservative base. McCain weighed the idea of appealing to independents and centrists by picking a respected political moderate such as Republican Tom Ridge or Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman, but that would have infuriated the right, especially those ardently opposed to abortion. Instead, he chose someone with strict conservative credentials.
--Palin is a Washington outsider who can be expected to express a traditionally Western skepticism about the breadth, intrusiveness and just plain old nosiness of government power.
--She is a young counterpart to McCain's age and could bring vitality and enthusiasm to the ticket.

In the negative column:
-- Whatever benefit her age may have has to be offset by her lack of experience. A governor with less than two years of experience at the helm of a state with a tiny population and state government suddenly becoming chief executive and commander in chief of 300 million people and the most powerful country in the world? Her curriculum vitae is so slight that when McCain recited her credentials, he had to include her PTA involvement.
-- Unknown and untested quantities can be dangerous. While Palin has certainly been carefully vetted, that doesn't eliminate all risks. Look at Geraldine Ferarro (the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984 whose contractor husband was embroiled in legal problems) and freshman Sen. Dan Quayle, who as the first President Bush's pick had to weather questions about his lack of service in Vietnam and often appeared green and experienced on the stump.
-- There is no way she can match Joe Biden's foreign policy and overall political expertise or his rhetorical skills on the stump or in debates. But in a debate Biden would have to be careful about not looking like a bully.
-- While McCain may be counting on her to win over some disillusioned supporters of Hillary Clinton, it's hard to see how most of her backers, even conservative Democrats, would feel much affinity with a pro-life conservative.
-- McCain may have robbed himself of a potent weapon against Obama. He has argued hard that Obama lacks the experience to be commander in chief, but how can he continue to do that when he has put an even more inexperienced leader a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world?