Friday, August 29, 2008


Beyond The Palin

From what I saw of her announcement, Palin is attractive, personable, very comfortable in a large public environment. That said, my gut tells me that this represents a strategic error on McCain's part.

More later.

UPDATE (9:00 PM): With a busy day at the office (trying to do some research on the newest Republican vice presidential candidate), now I can actually do a little more analysis here. On a purely tactical level, John McCain's choice was very smart. The other "short-list" choices -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or even Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia -- would have been ho-hum one-day stories. Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge would have been multi-day stories -- but of the wrong sort: "Conservative base up in arms over pro-choice pick!!!"

Instead, from most accounts, conservatives are ecstatic over this pro-life mother of five -- with at least one notable exception. On a broader level,
the surprise choice -- arguably a far bigger surprise than Biden -- and its novelty completely changed the media focus from the Democrats' convention and Obama's speech. Instead, the discussion is about a young, rather attractive female governor selected by John McCain. And, it's always a bonus when a tactical move on your part causes a tactical error on the part of your opponent. That's what happened with the Obama campaign's initial reaction (as stated by press secretary Bill Burton):
"Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency. Governor Palin shares John McCain's commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush's failed economic policies -- that's not the change we need, it's just more of the same."
For a campaign that has been all about "change" and bringing forward a new type of politics, this reaction completely undercut the Obama message. No surprise then that the campaign put out a later statement with both Obama and Biden's names on it reflecting what should have been the original reaction:
"Her selection is yet another encouraging sign that old barriers are falling in our politics. While we obviously have differences over how best to lead this country forward, Gov. Palin is an admirable person and will add a compelling new voice to this campaign."
Of course, you can't unring a bell. The first, ungenerous, release remains out there.

Hillary Clinton then chimed in with a statement that carried an interesting tone: "We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate."

Note the "we should all be proud" (emphasis added). Just in case Barack's crew didn't get the message.

Liberals and Obama supporters seem to be somewhat apoplectic over Palin -- because of the seeming hypocrisy of McCain saying that Obama is not experienced enough to be president, and then picking someone who hasn't been in the state house two years. I still think this does create an obvious inconsistency in the McCain message (the "strategic error" to which I referred in my immediate blog post above).

However, liberals should pause before they think that pointing out this apparent hypocrisy alone is going to be a winning argument. Several Hillary supporters during the DNC week complained about media sexism that they believe helped contribute to Hillary's loss -- and even if it didn't, there was anger about how some journalists had no problem using certain phrases and attitudes toward a female candidate, where the equivalent would never be directed at a black one. Geraldine Ferraro wrote a piece for the Daily News on the day of Obama's speech, making that point.

Whether one accepts this or not, the fact is that a certain number of Hillary supporters do. If either the Obama campaign or the broader media appears to attack Palin because she is a woman, it could backlash in a way that would be ultimately damaging to Obama.

Oh, and my friend Josh Marshall who has been practically doing cartwheels over a ready-made Palin scandal involving her office's alleged improper firing of the
state public safety commissioner because he refused to fire a state trooper who happened to be Palin's former brother-in-law. On the surface, one might be inclined to be troubled by the details of the story. Upon deeper inspection, even if Palin was in the wrong, she might accrue a hell of a lot sympathy because her ex-brother-in-law looks like a real dirtbag:
On July 17, the Public Safety Employees Association, with Wooten's permission, released the investigative file concerning the complaints brought against the trooper by the Palins, Palin's father, and others.

The internal personnel investigation began in April 2005, long before Palin became governor and months before her October 2005 announcement that she was running. The investigation into Wooten wrapped up in March 2006.

Troopers found four instances in which Wooten violated policy, broke the law, or both:

- Wooten used a Taser on his stepson

- He shot a moose without a permit, which is illegal. At the time he was married to McCann, who has a permit but never intended to shoot it herself.

- He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion.

- He told others that his father-in-law - Palin's father, Chuck Heath - would "eat a f'ing lead bullet" if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce.

Wooten's 10-day suspension was reduced to five after his union filed a grievance.

Just based on that, I can see Palin's wanting to get rid of this state trooper receiving support from the ACLU (over the Taser), PETA (over the moose) and Mother's Against Drunk Driving (getting sloshed in his patrol car). In other words, Palin could end up coming across very sympathetic. And the fact that she has made lots of enemies -- among Republicans -- because of the state's institutional corruption creates a fair bit of doubt that this investigation may well be politically motivated.

All that said, there is yet something that troubles me about the Palin pick, and this has nothing to do with her personally: As I said at the top, I liked what I saw at the rally (as regular commenter MS noted, she has a Tina Fey quality about her). Still, there is, in the choice, another example of a type of cynical Republican politics that churns my stomach.

Seeing Sarah Palin, I remember this walk I took back from the GOP convention space in San Diego in 1996 -- just about exactly 12 years ago. I found myself walking near a couple of young Caucasians (I'm thinking late-20s, maybe early-30s). One said to the other, "Just think, wasn't it supposed to be Quayle-Clarence Thomas?" The other said, "Oh yeah, right, that was what people were talking about." The meaning was clear: Some Republican strategist back in 1992 -- in the likelihood of a Bush re-election -- was game-planning what would be a great '96 ticket: Vice President Dan Quayle with Clarence Thomas as his running mate.

This isn't an apocryphal tale (and no, I hadn't been drinking). I never approached the two to get their names or where they had heard such an interesting story. Why Clarence Thomas would have ever even considered leaving a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court to get into national politics made little sense. However, the attitude exhibited by these two made perfect sense. It was driven by the same instincts that led George H.W. Bush to appoint Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall -- and say that that was the best choice available. This, of course, being the party that is against affirmative action, uh, excuse me, racial preferences.

Now, Clarence Thomas has developed into a challenging and complex Justice with a much stronger grasp of the nuances of legal theory than most liberal critics will admit. However, that was hardly perceived at the time -- even among conservatives: As George Will said at the time:
"George Bush began the Thomas saga by saying two things he and everyone else knows are untrue -- that Thomas is the person best qualified for the Supreme Court, and that his race was irrelevant to his selection." When he was appointed, he had been in political appointments most of his time in DC. He had been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit barely a year when he was elevated to the Supreme Court. Republicans decry identity politics, but this is how they play it -- with symbolic appointments that may be used for subsequent tactical moves down the line. Of course, Democrats play identity politics, but it is most often an attempt to balance the various parts of their electoral coalition.

Republicans do it for symbolic reasons or, as almost as often, for crass tactical ones. Thus, just as George H.W. Bush was willing to not let a simple thing like the Republican principle of being against affirmative action prevent him from selecting Thomas and calling him, "the best man for the job," John McCain is perfectly happy to push aside both a message stressing the importance of both experience and knowledge of foreign affairs in order to select a running mate who can be used to go after disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters. And, just in case, no one got the point, Palin genuflects before the previous examples of both Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Rodham Clinton. As Ramesh Ponnuru noted, the word for this is "tokenism."

Of course, Sarah Palin is as different from Barack Obama as Ferraro was from Clinton. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- whom I am not a fan of -- ran for office in New York and won. She then assembled a political machine and ran a hard race, but didn't quite win. Barack Obama who supposedly has no experience, with much less connections and resources than Clinton, assembled a national campaign, raised money and defeated an operation with a former president as one of its most powerful assets. That is an achievement earned. It wasn't given to him.

But, now, McCain's pick allows him to run for the White House because he, too, represents "change." And, yeah, Sarah Palin is certainly a change from Dick Cheney.

However, the GOP cynicism this identity pick also represents is change we've seen before.

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