Friday, August 29, 2008

A Cornered Animal

McCain's VP choice is who? Democratic political obsessives have always feared a female "gamechanging" pick, and Palin always seemed one of the more logical choices. She's a pro-life governor who talks energy policy. But she was a mayor of a small town just two years ago. She doesn't even have much in the way of surrogate experience, unlike a guy like Tim Pawlenty, who at least can be counted on to spew some right-wing talking points in an amiable manner. Palin may pay off big -- peeling off disgruntled HRC supporters -- but she's a big gamble.

When Obama tapped Joe Biden, it indicated that the campaign knows he has some weaknesses that needed to be shorn up, but fundamentally he likes where he's at. If Obama were running scared he would've picked HRC, whom he didn't want, but whose addition would almost guarantee a win.

By contrast, the Palin pick indicates that McCain's campaign believes they're down by a couple of touchdowns, and has figured that their tactical games aren't going to do it for him. With Obama showing last night that he's gonna blitz'em good, McCain's forced to go for a flea-flicker, a big, gimmicky play with high risk and high reward. I think it's a smart move, even if it takes the experience argument completely off the table. The experience angle wasn't going to fly once people see, at the debates, that Obama knows his shit.

Though Palin has winger credentials, she may bolster McCain's tattered maverick image. She's also a pick who will leave no opening for a Bush association. If the key demographic battleground is white middle-income women, McCain's just made a daring play for them.

Pretty savvy, but R.I.P. "Ready to Lead on Day One."

Addendum: After more research, I see the angle. The story that she didn't abort her Down's Syndrome baby will energize Pro-Lifers. That's key. And her presence will soften McCain's "get off my lawn!" image. It also indicates that McCain's entire platform will be Drill, Drill, Drill.

It seems to me the move is smart in the extreme long-term in that, like a Bobby Jindal pick, Palin's new visibility may be the first step in reinventing the GOP not as the party of Angry Old White Guys, but as the party of socially conservative yet competent managers from all backgrounds, the sort of party envisioned by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party. McCain and Palin need to distance themselves from the Club for Growth crowd to really start moving their fossilized party in a new direction, but image-wise, this is a good start.

In the extreme short term, this is also smart. Obviously, this "shocking pick" has undercut the Obama DNC speech hype. But McCain also changes the RNC narrative. If it were a more conventional pick like Pawlenty, the story will be "how can McCain distance himself from the unpopular Republican Party?* Now in the days leading up to the convention, the media narrative will be: "who is Sarah Palin, and will she be able to step up and deliver?" The media will set the bar very low for her. All she has to do is not flub a pedestrian, unoffensive speech, and the media will give her a pass.

But what about the medium-term? Here, I think the McCain team is tactically smart, but strategically questionable. You have a Veep whose notable inexperience will call attention not only to the hypocrisy of McCain's "Ready to Lead" argument, but also to his age and health. Second, the more I read about Palin, the more I see the dangers of likely Quayle moments. In this gaffe-attentive environment, a few slip ups will look extremely damaging. In terms of helping McCain win the election, it's hard to see Palin really end up doing much to help. But then, it's hard to see anyone else really helping that ticket short of Colin Powell.

* Speaking of the RNC, I hope the Obama team spins the media to get them to try to hunt down GOP extremists on the convention floor as diligently as they tried to hunt down HRC dead-enders. There are bound to be some serious haters there; they just need a little nudge.