McCain Throws the Hail Mary

Well, as commenter Ted predicted last Sunday, McCain has picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. The ‘sphere is now all akimbo with everything from plaudits on the right for McCain’s brilliant play for the PUMAs to brickbats on the left comparing Palin to Dan Quayle.

I stick with my original take, which is that VP selections generally don’t make presidential campaigns. Absent a Tom Eagleton-level disaster, the only name that matters when people go into the voting booth is that of the person on the top line. The election is still McCain v. Obama. The folks at 538 have it right, this is a long-shot play by McCain. In poker terms, he’s behind and is chasing a hand.

That said, Palin’s elevation does have some interesting sidelights.

I think the PUMA factor is greatly overrated. If you’ve run into more than a few hard-core types from either side over the course of a career, it’s easy to take in the existence of a vast and noticeable difference, perspective-wise and socially, between Republican women and Democratic women. They don’t mix. They don’t go to the same restaurants, they don’t have the same hobbies, they talk differently and they never, ever, vote for someone on the other side. Especially if that someone is another woman. And even from this remove, it’s obvious Palin is Republican-woman to the core, albeit with a few Alaska-specific quirks thrown in.

There are still pitfalls here for the Dems. Sexism in word or deed would backfire and there’s already evidence that some people just can’t keep their lips zipped. I would, for example, caution against making too big a thing about the squabble over Palin trying to get her ex-brother-in-law state trooper canned. There’s a nasty custody battle going on and it has the feel to me that the trooper has maybe been behind-the-scenes threatening to his ex. Which needless to say would put rather a different spin on things. And even if he hasn’t, a lot of women will suspect he has anyway and not greet with any warmth an attempt by the all-male Dem ticket to stick up for the trooper.

I agree with those who say this choice takes the experience factor off the table as an issue this fall. Palin’s main experience to date is a couple terms on the Wasilla, AK, city council, a couple terms as mayor, a failed campaign for lite-gov and then a winning campaign for her current position abetted heavily by the fact her name isn’t Murkowski. Wasilla is a small town — population 6,715 by its own count. Its budget now is a bit less than $10M a year and was no doubt significantly less in the late 1990s when Palin was running it. On the upside for her, it has a strong-mayor system, which means she was actually the chief executive in a town that has an airport and a water and sewer system. On the downside, executive experience doesn’t scale. What you learn running a small business or small town won’t help you run IBM or Chicago. In my area we have towns of 6,000 people, 20,000, 50,000 and 200,000 that are perfect examples of this. There are people who do a fine job of being mayor or city manager at one level would be totally out of their depth in the same position at the next. You don’t see the pros trying to climb the ladder. We have seen some of the pols, however, migrate down one level, moving to a smaller town, because they felt it would enhance their chances of winning office.

I think the same problem of scale is true of government at the state level. As Matt Yglesias points out, there are 16 cities in the US with larger populations than Alaska’s. And the biggest problem a President Palin would face, if that came to pass during a McCain term, is that being until now an Alaska-only pol, she’s not really at all familiar with the GOP talent base, in terms of would-be officeholders. A president’s toughest job isn’t the 3 am phone call, it’s finding and appointing a couple thousand people who can work together as a team. Palin can’t possibly know who on the GOP bench is good, who’s good but has to sit this one out because he can’t stand so-and-so and would backstab him at every opportunity, and so on. She just wouldn’t be able to form a team that could help compensate for her personal lack of experience.

But that probably doesn’t matter to the people McCain cares about. This pick, at the end, highlights the rural/urban split between the GOP and the Dems generally, and between the McCain and Obama tickets and platforms specifically. Palin will drive urbanites nuts, but she’ll appeal to rural voters just fine. The problem McCain faces is that between the economy and Obama’s organizing prowess, this probably doesn’t start as a 50-50 election, demographically speaking, like the last two.

One Response

  1. […] Said … Posted on September 7, 2008 by gronberg Republican women and Democratic women just don’t mix. The Washington Post: In the new poll, it is underlying political attitudes that appear to […]

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