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Magazine

McCain's Palin Gamble

'Change' Attribute Trumps National Security Cred In Risky VP Pick

August 31, 2008

The first objective in selecting a vice presidential running mate, it's often been said, is to follow the Hippocratic Oath, which has been paraphrased as, "First, do no harm." Consider John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin through that lens.

Most people would agree that the presidency is no place for on-the-job training. A vice president needs to be ready to step into the Oval Office at noon on January 20, 2009. By all appearances, McCain decided that experience in handling the complex and delicate world of national security isn't essential in a running mate and instead cast his lot with change and reform. McCain seems to have concluded that it was more important to draw a sharp contrast with the eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and to associate himself with change and reform than to risk being labeled as the candidate of "more of the same."

It would be hard to mistake Sarah Palin for Dick Cheney. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, McCain was 14 points behind Barack Obama among women. Although it's hard to see much overlap between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's female supporters and those of a woman who is anti-abortion and a lifetime National Rifle Association member, her selection might help McCain narrow the gender gap a bit.

 

In terms of exposure to national security, Palin makes Obama look like Henry Kissinger.

This could not have been an easy choice for McCain to make. After all, his chief selling point during the GOP primaries earlier this year was that his national security experience made him uniquely qualified for the presidency. Because none of us are privy to the polling and focus groups that the McCain campaign undoubtedly employed to ascertain what they needed to do in the selection of a running mate, we are obviously flying blind in assessing the impact of his choice.

It's probably true that there were no risk-free choices for McCain and that there were pretty good reasons for not selecting most, if not all, of the names of potential running mates that were publicly circulated and privately contemplated. So McCain had to weigh various factors and arguments, and then make his decision.

Within three hours after the news that McCain had chosen Palin, a former top strategist to President Clinton was already zeroing in on the argument that Palin would be a heartbeat away from replacing a "72-year-old, four-time cancer survivor president." That's pretty tough stuff, but in terms of exposure to national security, Palin does make Obama look like Henry Kissinger.

One Republican pollster suggested of Palin: "There's a good chance that the sheer force of her personality will overcome some of the hesitations voters might have. Voters are going to want to like her. They will find her interesting and different; they will see part of themselves in her -- which they don't with the other candidates." He concluded, "Don't underestimate the impact she could have."

The Palin choice was a huge risk for McCain, but the danger for Democrats is, if they get overconfident and ridicule her, they could create a backlash of sympathy for her. We all remember how high the expectations were for the 2000 debates when many people predicted that Vice President Gore would mop up the floor with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, which didn't exactly happen. One of the more dangerous things in politics is when you lose respect for your opponents and allow that lack of respect to lead to mistakes. Karl Rove made the understatement of the day on Fox News when he said that "expectations will be low" for Palin.

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