Why Sarah Palin?
By Jerome Grossman
For many months, John McCain, along with millions of other Americans, regarded Barack Obama as a phenomenon in the political world, and perhaps beyond. In McCain headquarters, Obama’s name is rarely uttered as he is referred to as “The One”, a mystical title with messianic overtones. He came from nowhere, unannounced and unexpected, clothed in inexperience and a sense of mission.
How long would the Obama phenomenon last? Would it survive the fickle temper of the times, the pressures of American politics? For McCain, the Democratic National Convention was an indication that the media’s love affair with Barack would continue, that the usual Republican strategies and tactics were doomed to failure on November 4.
McCain had seen similar phenomena at the dice tables of Las Vegas where occasionally unknown rookie shooters, inexperienced in the nuances and even the odds of the game, pick up the dice and roll out a long succession of sevens and elevens, making sixes and eights in between as the crowd goes wild. McCain had seen the sly techniques used to throw the lucky shooters off their game: loud noises, a drink spilled onto the table, a manufactured argument.
The nomination of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska for vice-president is McCain's attempt to throw Obama off his game by substituting a competing story line even more improbable than Barack’s. It is an act of political desperation, a “Hail Mary” forward pass thrown in an attempt to stave off inevitable defeat. Nominating Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge as part of a traditional political ticket would not work against “The One”, against the long accumulated guilt feelings of so many Americans, guilt feelings that can now be expressed by voting for this unthreatening assimilated African-American.
McCain's gamble is another indication of the trivialization of American politics. Serious discussion of issues and problems fades behind the attractiveness of personality. Sarah Palin is a former beauty queen and star athlete, unflappable despite her inexperience, secure in her far right conservative Republican beliefs. She will not be diverted by Jay Leno jokes that describe her as a baked Alaska or The Perils of Palin. (Notice how few jokes are told at midnight about Barack? Are the comedians afraid of eternal wrath?) And if Joe Biden patronizes or interrupts her in their debate in his usual style, he will regret the encounter.
Palin's nomination competes with Obama’s in exploiting American guilt by offering voters a choice between correcting the underrepresentation of blacks and women. Of course, the election of President Obama will be more significant than the election of vice-president Palin, but the contest does offer a choice of remedies to historic exclusions: do one now, the other later.
Will Palin attract many of the women who voted for Hillary in the primary elections? I doubt it. Most of them are feminist to some degree, feminists who will be repelled by Palin's ultra conservative positions. Equality for women may be their most important issue, but most of them have a range of liberal beliefs that Palin cannot satisfy.
And this contradiction will be made even more apparent in the campaign as Palin tries to shore up conservative support for McCain, now shaky at best, by telling them of her positions on abortion, guns, death penalty, Iraq war, etc. She cannot satisfy the conservatives and liberals at the same time.
Palin's inexperience, a heartbeat away from the presidency of a 72 year old man with a medical history, may take Obama’s similar inexperience off the political table. In fact, as Bill Clinton has said repeatedly, every new president enters office unprepared for the challenges of presiding over a nation of 300 million people. Clinton should know. His first two years as president were a disaster marked by failures in health care, gay-lesbian policies in the military, etc. culminating in loss of Democratic control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. John F. Kennedy's term began similarly with the Bay of Pigs invasion failure, nuclear war crises with the Soviet Union, and ineffectiveness in dealing with Congress. Republicans Ronald Reagan, Bush the First and Bush the Second had similar problems in mastering the presidency.
McCain fears that Obama may be unstoppable in his advance to Pennsylvania Avenue. As differences on issues fade, as personality and celebrity reach new heights of importance, as race prejudice becomes entwined with historic American guilt, the political trend is unmistakably toward Barack. Sarah Palin will not change the result any more than previous vice-president nominees. John McCain's Hail Mary pass will not prevent the election of “The One”.