McCain '08 (feat. Sarah Palin).

This is a little late, but the BBC is reporting that John McCain has chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate:

At 44, she is younger than Barack Obama and is credited with reforms during her first term, but she is relatively unknown in US politics.

Mr McCain is due to present her on stage at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, to celebrate his 72nd birthday.

Analysts say the Republican is keen to wrest back headlines from Mr Obama.

Sarah Palin is an interesting choice, but that’s in part because she’s fairly interesting, as far as Republicans go.  Early on in her career Palin earned a reputation for being something of a reformer.  When running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she promised to reduce her salary and cut wasteful spending by reducing property taxes, and once elected, she promptly followed through on both promises.  In 2003 she was appointed to serve as the ethics commissioner for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the following year however, she resigned in protest over her fellow Republican’s “lack of ethics.”

In 2006, she ran for governor on a platform of transparency and good government, first beating the incumbent Republican Gov. Murkowski in the primaries, and then going on to win the general election against well-funded Democrat former Gov. Tony Knowles.  In winning the governorship, Palin broke two barriers: not only was she the first female governor of Alaska, but at 42, she was also the youngest elected governor in Alaskan history.

By most – if not all – measures, Sarah Palin’s tenure as governor has been a success; not only was she responsible for pushing through a far-reaching ethics bill (which, for the fairly corrupt state of Alaska, is a pretty big deal), but she also played a big part in killing Ted Steven’s notorious “bridge to nowhere” project, which was slated to cost somewhere in the realm of $400 million.  Furthermore, Palin publicly challenged Sen. Ted Stevens to submit to a federal investigation.  By the time she finished her first year in office, Palin was one of the most popular governors in Alaskan history, with an approval rating in the 90s.  As of this summer, her approval rating hovered around 80%.

Politically, Palin is probably the smartest choice.  Romney – despite being the best “governing” choice – would have been a disaster politically; his phoniness turns of voters, and his Mormonism could depress the evangelical turnout necessary for McCain to win.  The only other real choice was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and frankly, Pawlenty isn’t interesting enough or dynamic enough to have really made an impact for McCain.  Moreover, Pawlenty has zero experience with a national campaign, and it’s not clear that he could withstand the rigors of presidential campaigning.  Not to mention the fact that in a debate with Joe Biden, Pawlenty would probably end up being embarrassed (it also doesn’t help that the Minnesota bridge disaster is still fresh in a lot of voter’s minds).  Palin, at the very least, doesn’t have any serious liabilities, and seems to be a genuinely compelling and charismatic figure.

That isn’t to say however, that she doesn’t have her weaknesses.  Palin has been embroiled in various ethics scandals over the past few years (none of them big enough to really damage her “brand” in Alaska, but each of them significant enough to tarnish her image on a national stage), and her relative lack of experience is a liability for McCain’s message.  That is, McCain has built his campaign on the claim that he has the most experience to lead the country during wartime, and to that end, has repeatedly attacked Obama being too inexperienced.  But by choosing a 44-year-old first-term governor as his running mate, McCain risks sending the message that he himself doesn’t place too much stock in his experience argument.  Now, immediately you can say that Obama damaged his message of “change” by choosing a six-term Senator, but I’m not sure if the comparison works.  In the Obama narrative, youth isn’t a necessary condition for “change,” someone who’s been in the Senate most of their adult life can still be a force for “change” if they are (to paraphrase the Bible) in Washington but not of it.  The other concern is that Palin doesn’t have any real experience with a national campaign, and it’s not clear that she could hold her own against a seasoned senator like Joe Biden (though, Biden should be careful about being too aggressive during debates, he doesn’t want to seem like he’s bullying Palin).

There are some notable advantages to choosing Palin over her competitors; McCain is trying to capitalize on his image as a “maverick,” and by choosing a running-mate who in a lot of ways is at odds with party, he bolsters that image and gains a little protection against the charge that he is running for Bush’s third term.  And, Palin’s social conservatism will help assuage the concerns of culture warriors who are still skeptical of McCain’s commitment to their cause.

Now, it’s clear that McCain is aiming to win over women voters (and particularly Clinton voters) with this pick, but I’m not sure if that will be effective.  Remember, many women were attracted to Clinton in part for her strong stances on reproductive rights and issues like childcare.  Palin, like most Republicans, is firmly anti-abortion and believes that life begins at conception, which – as Zeitlin notes – is something of an extreme position.  Moreover, the Obama campaign has taken a really strong position on women’s issues; equal pay has become a centerpiece of the campaign’s rhetoric, and the Democratic Party has adopted a reproductive rights platform which not only guarantees abortion rights, but also is committed to expanding economic opportunity for women.  Unlike a good friend of mine, I don’t think that McCain sees women candidates as interchangeable, but I do think he’s overestimating the extent to which choosing a woman could help him with women voters.  In fact, the last time a major party ticket featured a woman – in 1984, when Mondale choose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate – it didn’t have any noticeable effect on women voters (if I remember correctly, Reagan won something like 56% of women).

On the whole though, I think McCain made a good choice in choosing Sarah Palin; she’s intelligent, charismatic, and capable.  But more so than any other candidate in the race, she’s a relatively unknown quantity, and thus it’s hard to say what impact she’ll have on McCain’s campaign, and the election as a whole.  With any luck though, we’ll look back at McCain-Palin as nothing more than Mondale-Ferraro part deux.

(photo from flickr user jasonrosenbaum2)

cross-posted at The United States of Jamerica


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.