Sarah Palin - Important or not?

There is an absurd amount of attention being paid to Sarah Palin right now. Unlike Joe Biden, who basically got a round of huzzahs from everyone involved (except for disappointed Hillary supporters), Palin seems to be a pretty controversial choice. This post will just gather some of my thoughts on the issue, with the goal being an assessment of the import of the decision. This won't be a link-fest, so for purposes of sourcing, I'd pretty much assume that everything is second-hand from the NYT and the WSJ. Snippets from the Daily Show and Michael Ian Black's blog may have subconsciously made their way in here as well. Feel free to post a comment or correction if you think I'm missing anything.

The Palin pick is being set out as important for two reasons. The first is that it is being viewed as the "first" major political decision that McCain has made since his run for President began. I find this line of reasoning a little odd, since he's been in Washington for 26 years and has made plenty of decisions over that period of time. But nevertheless, it is pretty instructive to view this episode as a proxy for how a McCain White House would go about making its decisions.

The second reason is that unlike Barack Obama, John "I've survived skin cancer" McCain is a prime target for kicking the bucket in the public eye, due to his age. That is to say, there's a higher likelihood that his VP might actually become the President. Because of this, it's important that Palin not only 'add to the ticket' (whatever that means), but that she also be someone ready to govern should she actually have to take office.

Controversy seems to surround both issues, so I'll take them in turn.

1. The selection process

There are two pertinent questions regarding the selection process.

A) Why did he choose Palin?

As conservative editorialist David Brooks thinks of it, McCain chose Palin because she is a "maverick" like McCain, willing to speak up against the big oil companies and established Republicans in Alaska such as Sen. Ted Stevens, who is now being investigated for corruption. Those in more neutral territory will point to the fact that she is pretty much what McCain needed to shore up the conservative base, due to her strict social conservatism (i.e. she's pro-life, pro-creationism being taught in schools, anti-gay marriage, hunts moose and has a life-long NRA membership, etc.) Those with a more cynical view - chiefly Democrats/liberals - think of it as a crass grab at disaffected Hillary voters who just want another shot at getting a woman into the White House, or wherever it is that VPs live.

There may be some element of truth to all of these theories. But if one looks beyond the hypothetical cost/benefit character analysis, part of it seems to have simply been a matter of timing. The story that is circulating is that up until fairly recently (i.e. one or two weeks ago), McCain was still leaning heavily towards his pro-choice friends Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. Romney and Pawlenty had been discounted for being "too safe." However, due to his already shaky relations with the conservative base and the need to "shake things up" for the conventions, he decided to go with the more solidly conservative Palin.

B) How thoroughly was she vetted?

The McCain campaign stands by its pledge that Palin was thoroughly vetted before her selection. Even now, as the press rakes the coals over Palin's daughter's pre-marital pregnancy, the McCain campaign insists that they knew about the situation at least a week prior to its announcement.

The NYTimes, however, is devoting a fair amount of coverage to debunking this view. Palin and McCain had apparently met only once prior to her selection for VP. According to other NYT articles, Republican lawyers have just been sent up to Alaska to comb through Palin's records. None of Palin's colleagues or friends were ever contacted for background checks prior to the decision and many of them expressed shock at her selection for VP.

To date, the McCain campaign has not taken great pains to describe the process by which Palin was chosen. To be fair, the Obama campaign has also been fairly tight-lipped at how they decided to choose Biden. However, the stories surrounding the Palin selection seem to be much more negative, with the not-so-subtle implication being that McCain rushed through his VP pick in order to find a politically expedient candidate. If this is true (which it may not be!), that would be a serious mark against a candidate that is trying to campaign on the basis of his experience and judgement.

2. Palin's readiness

Again, let's break it down into some key questions.

A) Does she have the requisite experience?

This question is significant only because one of the hallmarks of McCain's campaign has been that Obama lacks the experience to be President. Conservatives have cited the fact that she has more executive experience than either Obama or McCain, from her time as Alaska's Governor, starting in 2006, and as the mayor of a small Alaskan town called Wasilla. Pundits on Fox have also said that she also has foreign policy credentials, due to Alaska's proximity to Russia. I hope some of you out there are laughing as hard as I did when I first heard that.

It is fairly easy to criticize Palin's gubernatorial experience. For instance, one could point out that Alaska had approximately 670k inhabitants as of the last census in 2006, making it less populous than the cities of San Francisco, CA or Columbus, OH. Given that so many Democrats are now happily supporting a first term senator, this strikes me as being a disingenuous attack. The real question should be whether or not Palin has some sort of credentials that might indicate that she is in fact capable of being the President, even if she has not had the track record to prove it.

Obama can point to several items which at least distinguish his intellectual capabilities. He was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, he was a law professor at the University of Chicago for a number of years, and has written extensively about his positions on a wide array of topics. On top of that, he has managed what many are calling one of the most well-run political campaigns in history, which indicates that he has some idea of how to execute on tasks.

Palin's intellectual credentials, on the other hand, are limited to graduating from the University of Idaho. She was also a sports reporter at KTUU-TV in Alaska, but that may work against her.

B) What are her positions?

There is very little controversy here. Palin is extremely conservative. She is pro-life, a lifelong member of the NRA, a firm supporter of abstinence-only education, and an opposer of same-sex marriage. Her record shows her to be an opponent of government waste.

C) What kind of person is she?

Unfortunately, Palin's positions for the most part seem to be irrelevant. The bigger question that seems to be burning up the media is whether or not she is a "maverick" Republican speaking truth to power, or if she is actually a phony. While there may be something to all the Democratic hubbub about her involvement in the firing of a police officer, it is unlikely that any of this is anything but fuel for a fire between both parties.

In the final analysis, Palin does not strike me as being someone with the intellectual firepower, nor the experience, to effectively guide the United States. More importantly for me, she seems to be sitting on the exact wrong side of the fence on a lot of wedge issues. Of course, the relative importance of all of this is somewhat muted by the fact that McCain isn't that likely to just drop dead. However, the fact that he's willing to put such substantial responsibility on the shoulders of someone that seems so unqualified does speak volumes.

Final assessment

On both counts, it strikes me that the selection of Palin was a poor one. Not only is she unfit to be President, but the entire process by which she was selected strikes me as being haphazard and motivated almost purely by politics.

I'm sure that the Palin selection could have essentially been a non-event. No one really cares about the Vice President - after all, George H.W. got elected after having selected Dan Quayle, even though he would clearly have been one of the dumbest people to have been a heartbeat away from the most powerful position in the known world.

However, that being said, I think the fact that she is a woman is making a world of difference in the realm of public perception. The potentially historic import of her gender, combined with the fallout from Hillary Clinton's primary run, basically guaranteed the excessive scrutiny that she's been receiving. Because of this factor, I think the political import of the decision will be magnified ten times over.

So to wrap this up, from a purely rational point of view, I think this was a bad choice that reflects poorly on McCain, but probably wouldn't be a deal-breaker for me if I was an independent supporter of his. However, from a political fall-out perspective, I think this is a bad choice that is probably going to get a lot of airplay and may in fact severely damage whatever chances he may have had. Let's see how it plays out.

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