McCain's Big Gamble: A Gift To Democrats?

This morning everyone is asking themselves: Who is Sarah Palin? In a bold and risky move, Senator John McCain selected Alaska's governor as his running mate.

Palin, a self-described "hockey mom," is a staunch social conservative with a reputation as a crusading reformer after pushing through higher taxes on oil companies. However, she has been tarnished by revelations that members of her staff tried to have her former brother-in-law fired from his job as an Alaska state trooper:

State lawmakers have launched a $100,000 investigation to determine if Palin dismissed Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan last month because Monegan wouldn't fire a state trooper involved in a messy custody battle with her sister.

She also is under fire from environmentalists for opposing the Bush administration's decision in May to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because global warming is melting the polar ice cap. Palin said the decision could damage the state's and nation's economy.

Palin's rapid ascent in politics followed her appointment in 2003 by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski to Alaska's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. From that post, she exposed ethical violations by the state GOP chairman, also a fellow commissioner, who got too close to the oil companies, and later exposed a similar problem involving the state attorney general. Palin's record on oil is not a simple one.

She supports opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling. But over opposition from oil companies, she pushed through the Alaska Legislature new taxes on the profits from oil pumped on Alaska's North Slope, arguing that an earlier tax proposal by her predecessor, Murkowski, was too lenient to the industry.

With oil prices soaring, Alaska collected an estimated $6 billion from the new taxes last fiscal year. With the state treasury bulging, she won legislative approval for a special $1,200 payment to every Alaskan to help pay for high energy prices.

She supports a TransCanada Corp. pipeline opposed by Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP PLC, the major gas lease holders on the North Slope. They have proposed a separate pipeline venture.

Palin's approval ratings have ranged from 79 to 86 percent, says Mark Hellenthal, a Republican pollster in Alaska.

"She's like Saint Sarah up here," according to Hellenthal.

But she's hardly without strong critics.

Dermot Cole, a longtime columnist for Alaska's second-largest newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, called McCain's choice of Palin reckless and questioned her credentials.

"Sarah Palin's chief qualification for being elected governor was that she was not Frank Murkowski," Cole said of her enormously unpopular predecessor, who lost favor with Alaskans in part because of unpopular budget cuts. "She was not elected because she was a conservative. She was not elected because of her grasp of issues or because of her track record as the mayor of Wasilla."

Clearly McCain is taking a big gamble with Ms. Palin:

“Here’s what I’m worried about,” said Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. “McCain had to protect his reputation as an opponent of status quo Washington. He had to pick someone with the shortest Washington résumé. He did that. He picked someone the right wing is going to be happy about. But it’s a gamble.”

“The question is,” Mr. Rogers continued, “what does it do to the argument that Obama’s not ready?”

The question is particularly acute for Mr. McCain, who turned 72 on Friday and would be the oldest person elected to a first term as president if he won in November. His campaign now needs to convince the public that it can imagine in the Oval Office a candidate who has spent just two years as governor of a state with a quarter of the population of Brooklyn.


“In a way, McCain has set a trap on the experience argument,” said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996, “because if they start picking on her on experience, it’s going to backfire with women.”

Clearly McCain selected Ms.Palin to attract religious conservatives and more importantly, women who voted for Senator Clinton:

As much as Republican analysts/apologists would love to allay the critiques that Palin’s nomination is driven by her “maverick” political past (more on that later), her candidacy is transparent. The choice of a white, motherly, middle-aged woman is obviously a demographic ploy to further disunite the Democratic Party immediately after Thursday’s conclusion of its convention.

The timing of the announcement in the wake of Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden instead of Clinton as a running mate and the inclusion of a woman on the Republican ticket with its own history-making possibilities just scream reactionary cynicism. Not that an election campaign is much more than a performance in poll dancing, but the use of gender in McCain’s choice for vice president is still disturbingly shallow.


Her support for big oil companies, destruction of polar bears aside, leads her to advocate strongly for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an idea that has for ages been disregarded as a reactionary and foolish Band-Aid on the larger problem of the country’s dependency on oil, foreign or domestic.

She further displays her Republican convictions through wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade; not believing in even the bastardized idea of gay civil unions; and being a proud, gun-toting/photo-oped member of the NRA. Although called a political outsider and reformer by analysts in Alaska, Palin has had an approval rating of over 80 percent during most of her two years as governor.

But her maverick status—the standards of which now have fallen to mean (1) you don’t come from a pre-existing political family and (2) you don’t allow people in your administration to do obviously illegal things—is now the focus of the mainstream media. Palin did blow the whistle on the Alaska state Republican chairman after a conflict-of-interest case went untouched, but clearly the word maverick has become empty when it can be so generously applied to someone thrown onto the national political stage after only a handful of years in her political party.

The choice of Palin, as much as it is a performance supplement to McCain’s diet of jowl-shaking diatribes against Obama’s celebrity and spryness, does offer a considerably unified platform from which to launch the Republican Party into its convention in St. Paul next week. The ways the Democrats will respond, both immediately and in terms of their long-term strategy to win in November, will be interesting to watch, as will the requisite deluge of comments about Palin’s attractiveness and femininity. Oh yeah, the governor-turned-vice-presidential-candidate was a runner-up in a Miss Alaska beauty pageant. Let the cable news commentary commence.

But others see this move as possible political genius:

That's because the very issues that Democrats say make her a political risk -- her newness to the political world stage, her anti-choice stance, her opposition to gay marriage, her support of capital punishment, her disregard for the environment -- matter very little in determining the outcome of elections.

Voters -- some of whom dissect policy issues daily, but most of whom don't -- ultimately cast their ballots based on emotion. Not logic. Not knowledge of "the issues."

Most analysts agree that the selection of Ms. Palin as a running mate is a big gamble that may prove to be the smartest move yet from the McCain Camp or it could backfire in a big way, paving the way for a landslide victory for the Democrats this November.

Stay tuned, the U.S. election scene just got a whole lot more interesting.