John P. Avlon
Author, Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics
The secretive selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain's vice president is a small masterpiece of tactical and strategic triangulation intended to drive a deeper wedge between Hilary and Obama supporters. With both parties now offering historic campaigns of change, Obama loses exclusive use of that emotional real estate, and Republicans may gain a new edge with swing voters by offering both change and more of the same.
The downside for Republicans is that Palin's selection will undermine their attacks on Barack Obama's youth and inexperience. Governor Palin was first elected governor in 2006 – and before that she was mayor of her home town in Alaska, Wasilla, with an operating budget of less than $6 million. But Democrats will have a difficult time attacking her without provoking accusations of sexism – Joe Biden's attack-dog instincts could backfire badly in the VP debate. That is a variation off the same problem Republicans had with Obama until they stumbled upon using humor with the Achilles heel of the "celebrity" argument.
Governor Palin's status as a pro-life second amendment soccer mom keeps conservatives happy while offering the only (albeit brief) experience with executive leadership on either ticket.
McCain was grinning the grin of the successful gambler as he unveiled his pick in Dayton today. Palin's introductory speech hit themes designed to appeal across the political spectrum – saying "this is a moment when principles and political independence matter a lot more than just the party line."
Fiscal conservatives who felt betrayed by the GOP during the era of Tom Delay found plenty to like in her record of cutting taxes and government spending – she actually refused the federal funding for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.
Independents and centrists will appreciate her role in filing ethics charges against the Republican State Party Chairman and Alaska Attorney General – she is an outsider and a relative reformer in the home state party of indicted Senator Ted Stevens.
Liberals may appreciate her shout outs to Geraldine Ferrarro and Hillary Clinton – and her status as a 44-year old working-mother, married to her union-member high-school sweetheart, and their 5 kids – including an eldest who is due to ship out to Iraq.
The McCain campaign did an M15-job of keeping her selection under-wraps – there were no leaks or rumors even in the early morning of the announcement. In some ways it was a counter to the selection of Joe Biden and McCain's "7 houses" gaffe. Just as Biden was an acknowledgement of Obama's weaknesses on experience and foreign policy, Palin brings youth and a blue collar background to the McCain ticket – without angering social conservatives who were threatening to revolt if he defied their pro-life litmus tests.
Palin fits the Republican bill perfectly – but her fast rise from obscurity to being a candidate for vice-president was fast even by Obama-era standards. This is a person who had not been on the national political radar screen at all when the 08 presidential race began in the build to the 06 midterm elections. Whether she will prove to be a seasoned campaigner in the 67‑day sprint to Election Day remains to be seen.
Her selection speaks in part to the striking lack of diversity on the Republican bench, even when it comes to women. And more seasoned figures like Senator Olympia Snowe – who routinely wins 70% re-elections in the blue state of Maine – were never considered due to her liberal social positions. But Palin is an appealing young face – disarming decades old conservative stereotypes – and the Democrats must be on defense the day after their convention.
On a side note, the 2008 election has proved to be big-time for our non-continental states – Hawaii and Alaska, traditional presidential politics after-thoughts, now have native sons and daughters on the each ticket in the form of Obama and Palin. Our 49th and 50th states have come along way since Ike, and half a century since reaching statehood they've reached political maturity.
The bottom line: this already historic campaign just got more historic, and more competitive. Sarah Palin's selection represents an extraordinary evolutionary step forward for the Republican Party, and by extension, for our nation's politics. Neither the ticket looks like those of the past –and that's a good thing for America in the 21st Century.
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