When I got to work this morning and checked CNN, I was legitimately shocked to see a banner headline proclaiming that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was McCain's running mate.
Her name had been bandied around, but I always dismissed it as the female version of J.C. Watts. Just as Democrats have fretted about the religion gap, Republicans fret about the gender and race gaps. And both sides love their trophies, the politicians who they can point to and say, "See, we aren't all bad." Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is always held up as a former pastor (even though he was only briefly the associate pastor at a church) and who can forget the endless parade of black Republicans at the 2000 Convention. If the auditor of Ohio County, Indiana had been a black Republican, I guarantee they would have addressed the convention. Palin seemed to be a superficial "hey, she's a woman and if we have a woman on the ticket, female voters might like us." It's the political version of "I'm not racist. Some of my best friends are black."
Hopefully, the McCain campaign wasn't thinking so superficially. I think the idea of sending Pawlenty or Romney to debate Biden scared them. Against Pawlenty/Romney, there was a very good chance of another Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle moment where Biden fillets them as they look on plaintively. There wasn't a viable VP candidate who was going to be able to go into that debate and match Biden, haymaker for haymaker. But Palin changes that equation.*
(*Remember the Let Bartlet Be Bartlet West Wing episode, based on the famous Let Reagan Be Reagan memo? There is no one who has ever said Let Biden Be Biden. Joe Biden has always been irrepressively who he is. No matter the stakes, he will always be the brainy attention whore who loves a good quip and is the embodiment of an Irish hail-fellow-well-met. You cannot get him to change. When prepping for the Alito hearings, his staff implored him that he needed to ask short, open-ended questions to force the nominee to talk. And Biden told them he understood. And then promptly spent the hearings delivering rambling soliloquies that forced Alito to say virtually nothing. So if Palin leaves the door open to a great putdown quip, you would need a 110,000 volt cattle prod to keep him from making it. Against another white male politician, he could have that Bentsen moment. But against a young woman, he could have a Rick Lazio moment. He could come across as the hectoring male boss who belittles and doesn't respect the views of a younger female. It's an archetype that I'm guessing a lot of females have dealt with in their professional lives and would make them instantly sympathetic to Palin. So instead of finding someone that can beat Biden, they found someone who might be able to make Biden beat himself.)
Both Palin and McCain have something to prove with this pick. Palin's mission is obvious: she has to show that she can handle the national media spotlight on a daily basis where any misstep will race across the internet at record speed. This is an area of campaigning where Senators do better than Governors. Senators are used to the Washington media, understand how they operate and are cognizant of how words are perceived, received and can be skewed. Governors are used to dealing with their home state media, where provincialism is a plus, not a minus. It's a little bit like being president. How you are viewed in your own country and how you are viewed elsewhere in the world can be completely different. And coming from a state like Alaska only increases the learning curve. Palin got off to a distinctly un-Quayle like start in the announcement, but the key test will come in handling the day-to-day glare.
For McCain, he has to prove that this was not a token pick. You would think that proving Palin isn't the Republican Geraldine Ferraro would be Palin's job, but it's not. McCain has to prove that Palin will be a strong voice in his administration and this isn't just a sop to women. This will backfire if independent women voters think they are being patronized by McCain. And it isn't enough to throw her issues like women in small business or something that reeks of "women care about this crap, let me play with the army guys." McCain needs to let her take the lead on some gender-neutral issues. Let her be the one who hammers away on government waste and the Bridge to Nowhere. Let her hammer Biden and Obama for voting against an amendment that would have diverted money for the bridge her state didn't need to a state that did need it (post-Katrina Louisiana). It not only gives her some intellectual heft, but makes her look like a governing partner, not just a campaign partner.
This was probably the only pick that McCain could have made that would leave the base happy and make moderates curious. He deserves credit for having the guts to make the pick, even though he just handed the Democrats their instant rebuttal point on the experience question. This pick is playing with dynamite. The media will be quick to fit any gaffe into an inexperience narrative and the names Quayle and Ferraro will be just as quick to roll of their tongues. James Carville said that the key to picking a vice-president is to "make the opposing campaign manager throw up." I don't think David Axelrod has the heaves yet, but it probably made him sit down and think through how this changes the race and changes Obama's approach. And considering McCain's other options, that is a victory in and of itself.