With multiple media outlets confirming now that Governor Sarah Palin will indeed join the Republican ticket as John McCain’s running mate, McCain has clearly chosen to play offense rather than defense. Instead of a safe choice, such as closest runner-up Mitt Romney or genial Everyman Tim Pawlenty, McCain took some risk with a relative newcomer to national politics. Palin will inject risk, excitement, controversy, and an unexpected historic note to the Republican convention.
First, though, let’s assess the risk. Palin has served less than two years as Governor of Alaska, which tends to eat into the experience message on which McCain has relied thus far. At 44, she’s younger than Barack Obama by three years. She has served as a mayor and as the Ethics Commissioner on the state board regulating oil and natural gas, for a total of eight years political experience before her election as governor. That’s also less than Obama has, with seven years in the Illinois legislature and three in the US Senate.
However, the nature of the experience couldn’t be more different. Palin spent her entire political career crusading against the political machine that rules Alaska — which exists in her own Republican party. She blew the whistle on the state GOP chair, who had abused his power on the same commission to conduct party business. Obama, in contrast, talked a great deal about reform in Chicago but never challenged the party machine, preferring to take an easy ride as a protegé of Richard Daley instead.
Palin has no formal foreign-policy experience, which puts her at a disadvantage to Joe Biden. However, in nineteen months as governor, she certainly has had more practical experience in diplomacy than Biden or Obama have ever seen. She runs the only American state bordered only by two foreign countries, one of which has increasingly grown hostile to the US again, Russia.
And let’s face it — Team Obama can hardly attack Palin for a lack of foreign-policy experience. Obama has none at all, and neither Obama or Biden have any executive experience. Palin has almost over seven years of executive experience.
Politically, this puts Obama in a very tough position. The Democrats had prepared to launch a full assault on McCain’s running mate, but having Palin as a target creates one large headache. If they go after her like they went after Hillary Clinton, Obama risks alienating women all over again. If they don’t go after her like they went after Hillary, he risks alienating Hillary supporters, who will see this as a sign of disrespect for Hillary.
For McCain, this gives him a boost like no other in several different ways. First, the media will eat this up. That effectively buries Obama’s acceptance speech and steals the oxygen he needs for a long-term convention bump. A Romney or Pawlenty pick would not have accomplished that.
Second, Palin will re-energize the base. She’s not just a pro-life advocate, she’s lived the issue herself. That will attract the elements of the GOP that had held McCain at a distance since the primaries and provide positive motivation for Republicans, rather than just rely on anti-Democrat sentiment to get them to the polls.
Third, and I think maybe most importantly, Palin addresses the energy issue better and more attuned to the American electorate than maybe any of the other three principals in this election. Even beyond her efforts to reform the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, she has demonstrated her independence from so-called “Big Oil” while promoting domestic production. She brings instant credibility to the ticket on energy policy, and reminds independents and centrists that the Obama-Biden ticket offers nothing but the same excuses we’ve heard for 30 years.
Finally, based on all of the above, McCain can remind voters who has the real record of reform. Obama talks a lot about it but has no actual record of reform, and for a running mate, he chose a 35-year Washington insider with all sorts of connections to lobbyists and pork. McCain has fought pork, taken real political risks to fight undue influence of lobbyists, and he picked an outsider who took on her own party — and won.
This is change you can believe in, and not change that amounts to all talk. McCain changed the trajectory of the race today by stealing Obama’s strength and turning it against him. Obama provided that opening by picking Biden as his running mate, and McCain was smart enough to take advantage of the opening.