Sarah Palin & John McCain: Playing Election Hardball

by Rick Rockwell

As they say in Las Vegas, it was time for John McCain to “go all in.”

Picking Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate certainly qualifies, as Sen. McCain (R-AZ) attempts to counter a strong performance by his main competitor, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), at the Democratic convention.

Whether you judge McCain’s decision as a superb counterstrike or a flawed and dangerous choice (as the Obama camp attempted to frame it), the McCain campaign managed the media brilliantly in unveiling Palin. Say what you will about Obama’s text message gimmick to name his running mate, but the Democrats squandered the traditional media by using that method. The brilliance of McCain’s move was the timing. Instead of the media focusing solely on Obama’s soaring oratory on the day after his acceptance speech, McCain’s choice stole the lead story on radio, television and the internet, capturing the news cycle. With folks headed out of town for a holiday, grabbing the radio or other electronic media was key, and this media play created both buzz and diminished a great speech by Obama. Winning the media war doesn’t always mean getting elected, but the McCain camp still understands how to grab traditional media, and that’s where the independents and undecided voters are to be found (not hugging a blackberry like many in Obama’s base).

So here’s the reaction to the Palin pick:

• Is this a transparent and obvious grab for the disaffected supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? Sure. But that’s hardball politics. Criticize McCain for being insincere, but the move still puts a woman on the ticket, something the Democrats don’t have. Many observers noted only about 15 percent of Democrats may have enough of a Hillary hangover to switch columns come November or to stay home. (And some like James Carville are still pouting.) But slicing off even half of those disaffected voters may be enough for a slim McCain win.

• The Democrats have already stumbled across the trap of reacting too negatively to Palin. Discussing Palin makes folks talk about experience. The immediate criticism was her youth and that she has been a governor for less than two years. The Obama camp immediately focused on the fact she was a mayor of a small town and served on a city council, before her time as governor. But isn’t this Obama throwing stones from his own fragile glass house? Compare records. Before Obama’s propaganda campaign, as noted here before, a review of Obama’s record in the Senate showed he was rated as merely average. And most of his Senate experience is confined to his first two years before he started his presidential run. How is that not comparable to running a state?

• Palin’s run is also historic. It may not equally balance out Obama’s historic run for president as the first minority presidential candidate for a major party, but it is a notable counter-measure, and sincere or not, moves the Republicans forward, a generation behind what the Democrats attempted with former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York.

• Palin’s experience as a mayor and in small town government actually makes her appealing to rural working class voters, a group that hasn’t warmed to Obama.

• With two Westerners on the ballot, the Republicans will attempt to counter the Democrats’ new strategy in appealing to Western states. Palin has a long history in Alaska and is a native of Idaho.

• Palin’s pick had the NEA (National Education Association), basically the national teacher’s union, praising the Republicans for picking Palin, who comes from a family of educators. The NEA is part of the Democratic base (and has endorsed Obama), but originally the NEA was a big backer of Sen. Clinton (and her husband). Putting Palin on the ticket puts some of those votes from teachers in play.

Besides the issues of youth and inexperience, there are other risks in the Palin choice. Palin is working through a scandal: the Alaskan legislature is looking into whether her office used undue influence in the firing of a state official. The firing scandal revolves around Palin’s former brother-in-law who was involved in a nasty divorce from Palin’s sister.

Plus the national media haven't raked through Palin’s background yet in a strong way. Already, on the internet, critics have discovered her contradictory positions regarding the controversial Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project.

Finally, what the Palin pick tells us is it's going to be a rough and tumble fight for the next few months. And we won’t know until November if McCain’s gamble will have any pay-off.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is from 2007 and is by Tricia Ward; it is used through a GNU Free Documentation License. To see Gov. Palin's speech in Dayton, Ohio after she was named as Sen. John McCain's running mate, please check below.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

How many interstate highways does Alaska have? Zero.

How many cities with populations of more than 300,000? Zero.

How many real life, typical state budget issues does Alaska face? Zero.

Oh yeah, she is real ready to be vice president.

Rick Rockwell said...

I'll stand by what I said: she's as qualified for the position as Obama is for the position he's attempting to hold.

In other words, NEITHER is qualified to be president, but McCain's pick will keep this debate about qualifications on the front burner.

As noted multiple times throughout the blog in the past year: neither of the major parties have answered the clarion call with a ticket or platform meant to address the trying times the nation faces.

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