Most everyone agrees that John McCain's selection of Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate could be a "game-changer." But they disagree over which way it might change the game. We don't know how Palin will perform over the next 64 days. The choice could turn out to be inspired and resonate with swing voters, women, and independents. But Palin's selection also seems like a big risk, one that may not have been warranted in an already competitive race.
McCain's primary motivations were to present a stark contrast with the last eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration, push themes of change and reform, and invigorate the party's base. It appears that McCain very much wanted a dramatic "shake-em-up" pick, and he may have had his heart set on selecting independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, his close friend and ally on Iraq, or failing that, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. But the prospect of nominating an abortion-rights moderate was too daunting, with party leaders and activists predicting apocalyptic consequences if McCain committed such a heresy.
Although McCain may have had other reasons for not picking Mitt Romney, the fact that the former Massachusetts governor has either four or five homes, depending upon how you count them, along with McCain's seven, might have been enough to knock him out of the running. It's unclear what the catch was with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the other finalist. What is clear is that McCain found himself with fewer options than he wanted, and, and that reality, along with his overwhelming desire to shake things up, led him to the last-minute selection of Palin, who he had met only once (in February at a National Governors Association meeting) before the vetting process began. Some McCain advisers are now saying that she was fully vetted, but others are sending signals that she underwent only the briefest and scantest of scrutiny.
If you put the pictures of every Republican governor in the country on a dartboard and thrown a dart, the chances of a better selection might be higher.
Clearly, concerns about the base drove this decision. But it would appear that Palin's selection was driven more by fear of alienating the base by choosing a Lieberman or Ridge than by the need to put starch in the shorts of party members. McCain has consistently polled stronger among Republicans than Barack Obama has among Democrats. Although many Republicans don't particularly love McCain and might not run full speed to the polls, they'll likely show up out of disdain for Democrats and Obama. Four years ago, Republicans were running roughly even with Democrats in party identification. Today, they are somewhere between 7 (NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) and 13 (Pew poll) points behind. The question seems to be, "Can Palin help McCain get the lion's share of independents?" and not, "Can she solidify his base?"
But didn't McCain have other options that would not have offended conservatives, as Lieberman or Ridge would have while offering up more experience and less risk than Palin presents? If you put the pictures of every Republican governor in the country on a dartboard and thrown a dart, the chances of a better selection might be higher.
NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday aired video of McCain saying eight years ago, "The vice president has two duties. One is to inquire daily as to the health of the president, and the other is to attend the funerals of Third World dictators." There's a pretty fair chance that this footage will resurface in Democratic campaign ads, suggesting the level of importance that McCain places on the position, which is often said to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Picking Palin for vice president is an engraved invitation for critics to question and voters to wonder even more about McCain's age (72) and health. Is the risk worth it?
It has been widely noted that McCain is a devoted craps player. This time he really rolled the dice.
This article appears in the September 6, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.