The outpouring of enthusiasm and support for Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate has been almost unprecedented, an amazing reversal of the political currents for the past two years. Few believed even two months ago that Republicans could generate widespread enthusiasm for their ticket, let alone approach the fervor seen from Barack Obama supporters. McCain was simply too well known for that kind of explosive popularity, and the Republican brand too damaged.
At the same time, though, we have to guard against the same kind of cult of personality that arose around Obama and continues to this day. We want the large crowds, but we need to have them pay attention to the message. That message can’t just consist of “hockey mom” and “pit bull”, but a coherent public-policy philosophy along with a demonstration of how Palin’s record and experience supports it. Otherwise, we run the risk of making Palin into a reverse cartoon from the bubble-headed, trailer-trash yokel that the media has begun to paint.
That means being realistic about Palin’s experience. As governor for only 20 months, she has more executive experience than Barack Obama, but that’s a quip, not an argument. McCain chose her because she has a record of real reform, and of risk-taking in cleaning up politics, that includes more than just her term as Governor. We need to press that message and show how Palin commits McCain to change by outlining her achievements over the last several years, and focus on that rather than the Palin family. We have to acknowledge that Palin’s choice carried risk but that we needed a running mate like Palin to return the GOP and Washington to a path of reform, and the same old players in Washington wouldn’t do. Otherwise, we won’t convince anyone of the wisdom of Palin’s presence on the ticket.
We’ve been fortunate in one regard: for some reason, Barack Obama has chosen to run against Sarah Palin rather than John McCain in the last two weeks. We win that argument every time in two ways: Obama can’t beat Palin on experience, and McCain winds up looking like the only person running for President. However, we can’t count on that foolishness lasting forever, and we need to have a real argument for a McCain-Palin partnership as our main message when it ends. We have less than eight weeks to define Palin as the reformer and political prodigy she proved herself to be in Alaska.
Personality makes a great splash. Let’s get past it to make the real arguments now.