Palin on Top of the Ticket?

Washington Matters

Palin on Top of the Ticket?

If you take a look at the campaign schedule for the next couple days, you might easily make the mistake of thinking that Sarah Palin and John McCain have switched roles and that Palin is at the top of the ticket. In fact, we are seeing a role reversal of sorts, in more ways than one.

Consider that both McCain and Palin are holding TV interviews today. Palin has a couple more serious sit-downs with ABC's Charles Gibson while McCain appears on the "The View" and "Rachael Ray." As NBC points out in its First Read, the role reversal continues this weekend, with McCain taking Saturday off and then flying to New Hampshire Sunday for a NASCAR race. Palin, meanwhile, holds her first solo campaign event in Carson City, Nevada.

There are obvious reasons for this, and it makes good political sense for McCain. Palin is the star of the moment -- the celebrity, if we can use that word -- who draws huge crowds and excites Republican voters, especially evangelicals, as well as many women who don't think of themselves as Republicans. She also attracts a huge press following and wins media play.

But the GOP strategy of putting Palin out front has its risks. What's going to happen if McCain starts drawing a few hundred to his events (as he did in early August) while Palin attracts thousands? Will McCain go back to the town hall meetings that were his bread and butter but that he's now abandoned? Or will he be content to play second fiddle to his running mate?


Plus there is the obvious question of how will Palin do on her own. Will she continue to give the same speech at every stop and never hold news conferences? Will that get so tiresome that it no longer commands page one coverage?  Or is it enough to just excite the crowds and rally the base?

Her interviews with Gibson will continue today, and we're reluctant to draw conclusions before they're over. But a look at the 9000-plus comments on the ABC website tells us a lot already. By keeping Palin under wraps for two weeks, McCain's team has succeeded in holding off long enough for most people to form an opinion and that opinion clearly colors how they view the interviews. Those who liked her before the interview think she did great. Those who were against her think she flopped miserably. Open minds are already rare. It's interesting that most of the comments are about Gibson rather than Palin, with roughly equal numbers praising him for "gotcha" questions or castigating him being an unfair, bullying sexist.

Unfortunately, too little attention is being given to the substance of her answers. It's not insignificant that she didn't know what the Bush Doctrine is or that she didn't know that the U.S. regularly attacks suspected terrorists in Pakistan without telling Pakistan or that she now believes global warming is at least partially manmade after  years of denying that was the case.

But it's more important to debate the policies she enumerated. Do we really want the Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, a move that means we'd go to war if Russia does what it did a month ago? Why is it okay for the U.S. to attack another country if we feel threatened but Russia can't do the same? Are we willing to go back to the Cold War, which repeatedly threatened to turn hot, because that's what will happen if we encircle Russia with NATO members.


Also worth debating is her notion that the U.S. should never "second guess" Israel. Do we really want Israelis to think that we will support them no matter what they do? That's a significant reversal from past presidents, including Bush, who've regularly criticized Israel for establishing settlements in disputed territory and frequently urged restraint. If we give Israel a blank check to attack Iran, then we have to be prepared for the possibility that Iran will retaliate against the U.S.?

These are weighty issues and it will be a good thing if we debate them. But first, the GOP has to decide whether it will be McCain or Palin who speaks for the ticket -- and whether they speak with one voice. And if there are differences, we need to know that, too, because Palin could be thrust into the Oval Office at any moment if the ticket wins.