Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 15:16 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 15:16 | SYDNEY

McCain's choice



5 September 2008 11:19

I've been a little surprised by the vehemence of the criticism here in Washington, DC of John McCain’s vice presidential pick, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. It seems to me that it is just too early to tell what impact she will have on the race. Palin’s life story may well be as colourful and interesting as Obama’s. In her political career, she has shown significant pluck in fronting her own party’s establishment, in a way that rhymes nicely with lines in John McCain’s CV. She will energise the Republican base and appeal to some independents.

The case for Palin looks strong when compared with her competition for the job. Last week I suggested that, given the political and economic trends conspiring against him, McCain had to be more creative than simply choosing a party favourite like Mitt Romney. (Can you imagine the Democratic attack ads if the Republican ticket had boasted a combined real estate count of twelve houses?)

Tom Ridge and Joe Lieberman are not without their strengths, but their social liberalism might have devastated Republican turnout. (And anyway, does nobody else recall what a boring nobody Lieberman was when he ran for vice-president with Al Gore in 2000?) I have never seen Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota set the Thames on fire. None of the other Republican women mentioned in the past few days, such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, would have added much zip to the ticket.

There was one other candidate who might have been worth a try: Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Jindal is Indian-American, so his candidacy would have been nearly as historic as Palin’s; he’s also whip-smart, highly credentialed, and the chief executive of a real state. I had more or less ruled him out on the grounds of his age (37) and lack of experience – but if that didn’t exclude Palin, it shouldn’t have excluded Jindal. If McCain had tapped Jindal, then instead of spending the week learning about Bristol Palin’s hockey star boyfriend, Americans would have seen a lot of Jindal looking capable (even presidential, perhaps?) during Hurricane Gustav.

In any case, McCain chose Palin. His presidential campaign was on a trajectory to a respectable defeat, so he decided to interrupt it. The outstanding question, of course, is whether the person he selected is remotely qualified for the job she’s after. Alaska is so small and unrepresentative of the US that it’s hard to work out how her record translates. For example, Palin won the governor’s mansion in 2006 with fewer than one hundred thousand votes. There were almost as many people at Invesco Field last week to hear Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination.

And this question was in no way answered by her otherwise impressive speech to the Republican National Convention in St Paul this week. Palin was spirited and funny. If her elbows were sharp, well, that’s part of the No. 2's job. Some have tut-tutted at the partisanship contained in her remarks, but this only confirms my view that Americans are powder puffs when it comes to political combat.

Palin has a distracting manner of speaking that reminds me of Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick in Election – I can’t get it out of my head that she’s acting the part of a vice presidential candidate, rather than actually being a vice presidential candidate. But on balance, it was a strong performance. It will be interesting to see if McCain’s delivery this evening is as good.

Palin’s weakest moment came, unsurprisingly, when she ventured onto geopolitical ground and mucked up her line on Venezuela. And there’s the rub. It is one thing to deliver a prepared speech, drafted by others, after days of practice. It is another thing to appear confident and knowledgeable in the relentless environment of a presidential election race, with the whole world watching for mistakes. (It is something else again, of course, actually to do the job of vice president – or, in extremis, president. However, this post is about the politics of the Palin pick, not the ramifications of a Republican victory in November.)

Will Palin clear the electoral bar for commander-in-chief that the Democrats, through the exaggerated nature of their early criticism, have lowered? Or will she make people sufficiently uneasy that they vote for the other ticket even if they like her more? My instinct is the latter, but I’m not certain. That is why I think it’s too early to judge the wisdom of McCain’s decision: it may be brilliant or it may be a blunder.

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