Hurricane Sarah Palin blows in
September 5, 2008
Source: The Australian
HURRICANE Gustav hit the southern coast of the US this week and proved everyone wrong, doing little damage. But Hurricane Sarah swept into Minnesota and rocked the political landscape.
Sarah Palin, the moose-hunting outsider from the wilds of Alaska, stormed on to the national and international stage with a biography one would hardly dare script and an appeal that has electrified conservatives in the US and abroad.
A barnstorming speech at the Republican national convention in St Paul, Minnesota, turned a relative unknown into an overnight sensation. Like a 10c a share Alaskan oil and gas company that has just hit the jackpot, shares in Palin have soared.
When Republican presidential nominee John McCain picked Palin last week, he took the gamble of his life, investing his storied career and lifelong ambition for the presidency on someone many in the party were privately fretting was a penny dreadful. (And even with this week’s electric debut some continue to worry.)
McCain rolled the dice, a decision resting in part on personality and in part on political necessity. But as a former naval aviator, this swaggering risk-taking is part of his DNA and McCain never blinks.
“I make them (decisions) as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can,” McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. “Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.”
It is said that the choice of a vice-president by a presidential nominee gives the first concrete insight into what kind of president that person would make. In that calculus, choosing Palin shows again McCain’s love of the unconventional.
So Hurricane Sarah has swept the landscape, and it is Democrat Barack Obama who is looking conservative in his safe and steady choice of Joe Biden as vice-president. Or, in the political pejorative the McCain camp will employ, they are now “the Washington insiders” and McCain has partnered with gun-totin’ and fly-fishin’ Palin. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley ride again.
But according to one senior Republican source with knowledge of McCain’s selection, it was not just McCain’s penchant for the unconventional that led to his decision. The source says there were two scenarios facing McCain: that he was travelling well in the campaign against Obama so he would choose an establishment VP candidate, like a Mitt Romney; or that the headwinds were so strongly against Republicans this year there was little chance he would win so he had to try to reach for a “game changer”.
“This selection shows where the McCain camp thinks the campaign was at: that they faced the prospect of a wipeout in November,” the source says.
Indeed, McCain realised he had lost the argument of change v experience, so he went for the change argument too. “Change is coming!” McCain claimed last night, saying that in Palin he had found the perfect partner to “shake up Washington”.
The 44-year-old mother of five – the fifth, Trig, born just five months ago with Down syndrome – is a stunning political figure. Her husband, Todd, is a commercial fisherman and oil industry worker, a proud union member and a world champion snow machine racer.
Palin is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and a staunch evangelical whose views on abortion are so rigid that, for instance, even if her daughter were impregnated through rape Palin would forbid an abortion, a stance with which McCain’s wife, Cindy, disagrees.
The evangelical community in the US is over the moon at the Palin selection. And the gun-loving and hunting Republicans have fallen in love.
In one of the most memorable lines of the week, Fred Thompson, the Law and Order star, former senator and a presidential candidate this year, said of Palin: “I think I can say without fear of contradiction she’s the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field dress a moose, with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt.”
Conservatives, long sceptical of McCain’s maverick stances, including a liberal position on immigration and support for global warming (unlike McCain, Palin does not believe global warming is man-made), are mobilised. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative shock jock, the most listened-to commentator in the US, who has been sour on the McCain candidacy, yesterday said that from now on McCain would be known as “McBrilliant”. Echoing Thompson’s lines earlier in the week, Limbaugh said the liberal Left and the media were in a state of panic over what the McCain-Palin ticket meant and how McCain could trump Obama in the November 4 election.
But no one should get too far ahead of themselves. Hurricane Sarah is rocking this presidential race in other unexpected ways, too. For one, party insiders have been shocked by her selection. It was a decision few were in on. It is one that could still unravel. While McCain has said publicly that Palin was properly vetted before her selection was announced, the cascade of revelations about her personal and family life – as the US media played catch-up and descended on Alaska to find out more about its Governor – set the McCain team back on its heels. McCain and Republicans generally are livid at the coverage of Palin.
Republicans rose to their feet at one point in Palin’s speech this week and shouted at reporters, evoking past conventions where the longstanding animus many Republicans hold against the “liberal media” has erupted on the floor with boos and chants of “Tell the truth”.
Still, between some of the outrageous internet smears against Palin – none more outrageous than those that have hit Obama – legitimate questions have been raised about her experience. And while Palin has taken on the oil industry in her state, she has also been caught embellishing her reformist credentials. Perhaps most sensationally, certainly for the tabloids, was news that this ‘abstinence in sex education’ conservative has a 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is pregnant to high school student Levi Johnston. He describes himself on his MySpace page as a “f..king redneck”.
The media pounced on the personal, which many conservative commentators decried (although many of them have made a point of criticising parents of teenagers who become pregnant), but the more relevant detail was this: McCain’s sometimes fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants style was evident because the campaign learned of Bristol’s pregnancy last Wednesday, just two days before Palin would be announced as his vice-presidential pick.
Vice-presidential picks are usually given a thorough vetting to ensure there are no unexpected events that can invite a media storm. Until Palin’s speech, the McCain team had been on the defensive all week thanks to news of her daughter’s pregnancy and other revelations that indicated the campaign was caught on the hop. The Washington Post reported that Palin was not subjected to a lengthy in-person background interview with the head of McCain’s vice-presidential vetting team until three days before the announcement. She did not disclose that her daughter was pregnant until that meeting, the newspaper reported, citing to two unnamed McCain officials.
While the McCain camp insists Palin was chosen only after a lengthy, deliberative process that included the same background investigation given to others, few of her associates – or enemies – appear to have been interviewed and only this week, after the announcement, has a team from the McCain camp headed to Alaska and begun asking those close to Palin not to speak to the media or to at least be circumspect in what they say.
McCain did not speak face to face with Palin until the eve of the announcement when she flew to his retreat at Sedona, Arizona, but had spoken by phone with her the previous Sunday. Officials say he had more contact with others on his short list and admit Palin was the person he knew least.
What has emerged as the media has probed Palin’s time as a mayor and a governor is that she is facing an ongoing investigation in Alaska involving her firing of the state’s public safety commissioner. The bipartisan probe may hand down its finding just days from the November 4 election.
But it is the news of her daughter’s pregnancy, plus the fact Palin has special-needs baby, that has complicated the rollout for the McCain team. Some of the social conservatives are conflicted.
“We made a political determination that the American people would not object to a female candidate with a 17-year-old daughter who was pregnant,” McCain’s campaign chief Steve Schmidt said. “We believed that parents all over America would understand that life happens. The team made a recommendation to the senator that these issues were not disqualifying.”
It has not been that simple.
One of the doyens of the conservative movement, Laura Schlessinger, who has a national radio audience of more than seven million, said she was shocked by the news of Palin’s selection.
“I’m stunned. Couldn’t the Republican Party find one competent female with adult children to run for vice-president with McCain?” she wrote on her blog. Schlessinger did stress she would still vote for the McCain-Palin ticket because she was worried about the implications of a charismatic leftist such as Obama taking over the White House.
Schlessinger’s comments came as another conservative, Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and columnist for The Wall Street Journal, was caught on an open microphone criticising the selection of Palin. Noonan was asked if she thought Palin was the most qualified candidate for the job. “The most qualified? No. I think they went for this – excuse me – political bullshit about narratives,” she said.
Those private comments going live reflected a phenomenon witnessed all week at the Republican convention, which operated in parallel universes. Publicly, Republicans lauded Palin and McCain’s choice but privately they muttered things like “We are going to get hammered in November.”
In its way, the Democratic national convention in Denver the week before had this tension as everyone wondered if Hillary and Bill Clinton would do the job and back Obama to the hilt. They did and the Democrats left town at least sounding and looking united.
After Palin’s stirring speech, McCain has certainly mobilised the evangelical base of voters in a way that has rewritten his candidacy. Before the past two weeks, he was building a coalition of moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats unsure about Obama. Hurricane Sarah has blown that away and now McCain, the maverick who long eschewed wearing religion on his sleeve, is among some unlikely friends.
Larry Sabato, director of politics at the University of Virginia, who predicted McCain would need to pull off a game-changer, says McCain knows “he’s the underdog, and so by picking Palin he has done exactly what underdogs do to win: roll the dice.
“As with all dice rolls, this one may pay off big or bankrupt McCain. No one knows. My guess is that Palin is going to play very well with the Republican base all the way to November, and the base has never much liked McCain. This is a plus. The minus is that Palin is so conservative and was so negative in her remarks in her speech at the convention that I doubt she’s going to appeal to many swing independents and certainly not to Hillary (Clinton) Democrats.
“The other danger is in further revelations about Palin.”
There could be trouble brewing. The McCain campaign released a statement this week labelling as a “vicious lie” a report published in supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer that Palin had an affair. The newspaper is usually ignored by the mainstream press but the McCain team’s acknowledgment is the work of a campaign war room trying to head off the smears.
This week Palin made a stunning debut on the national and international stage and McCain walks away from St Paul with a new spring in his step and an exciting running mate at his side. Now for the hard part: Palin has yet to front America’s press to answer questions. Then there is the vice-presidential debate with Obama’s experienced, if occasionally gaffe-prone, running mate, Biden.
Palin, however, passed the first test, so the carnival rolls on and the US presidential campaign continues to offer one of the most compelling political story-lines in history.