Palin a Game Changer, But What’s the Game?

September 1, 2008

SAINT PAUL — It is too early to tell whether the stunning choice of Sarah Palin as running mate will do John McCain’s campaign more good than it does damage. It will certainly make Palin herself an instant media celebrity: on every screen and magazine cover, the delight of the social conservatives and the darling of the GOP convention that begins here Monday .

Who knows? Maybe her verve and crossover appeal will be just what McCain needs to win and redefine the Republican brand over the next several years. And maybe we will all look back on this as the dawn of the Palin Era in American politics.

But the essential question to be asked right now is this: Is Palin the person McCain would have chosen to be vice president if McCain were already president?

If in office — or assured of election — would he have looked to a person he had met for the first and only time earlier this year? Would he have called on a second-year governor from the country’s second least populous state? Someone with absolutely none of the foreign policy or national security experience — or even exposure — that he has said a president must have?

It is not only unlikely, it is all but inconceivable.

So it will be fair for objective observers to conclude that this was a choice made in order to enhance McCain’s chances of election. She appeals to women voters in a way McCain and his other VP choices would not. If the strategy of peeling off angry Hillary Clinton voters was not working up until now, it may work better now.

Palin also revives McCain’s rather moribund credentials as a reformer, because she ran against a compromised Republican governor in the 2006 primary and stands somewhat aside from the good old boy power structure of her party in her state.

But her real upside potential is in putting a new face on the Grand Old Party. She personifies the latest wave of populism on the right. The host governor here in Minnesota is Republican Tim Pawlenty, who has said the party needs to concentrate less on people who go to the country club and more on people who go to Sam’s Club. Pawlenty did not get the running mate nod himself, but his “Sam’s Club Republicans” are the demographic Palin represents.

So Palin is a game changer in the sense that she changes the electoral landscape in ways that should help McCain’s campaign. It’s all about getting him elected.

Of course, she also forces a less welcome change on the campaign’s central strategy. Up to now, McCain has stressed his preparation to be commander-in-chief and leader of the free world. He has drawn a contrast between his years in Washington, in government, in the foreign policy loop, and the relatively thin credentials of Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

This argument will not resonate the same way if McCain also wants to tell the world that a self-described “hockey mom” is prepared to be president on day one. And that claim, which McCain and surrogates are making with a straight face, will not restore any luster to his faded “straight talk” image.

Let’s be clear. It is not a crime or a sin for a nominee to choose a strictly political running mate. In fact, that’s been the rule more than the exception.

Through much of our history, the Democratic Party tried to balance every Northern nominee with a Southerner and vice versa. The Republicans did the same with their Eastern and Western wings. The vice presidency was a kind of appendix. Until the late 1940s, we did not even have a means of replacing the vice president if he died (or became president). Several presidents served nearly their whole terms without one. It was as if no one cared.

But in the nuclear age — the television age — the vice presidency has gained new significance. There have been 13 vice presidents in that time, eleven of them elected. Five have become president and a sixth (Al Gore) won the popular vote for president in 2000. Two others were nominated for president. And yet another, current Vice President Dick Cheney, has had such broad and deep influence that at times he seemed almost the co-president.

When President Richard Nixon had to replace his vice president in 1974, he chose Gerald Ford, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives. When Ford needed a vice president of his own, he chose New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, one of the best known figures in American public life. Those are the kinds of decisions presidents in office, both Republicans, made when it was the job, not the election that mattered.

Were he in a similar circumstance today, John McCain would do the same.


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