McCain’s all-or-nothing choice

Just catching up with the news of John McCain’s choice of running mate.

I thought McCain was perceived to be running pretty strongly at this point – statistically neck and neck in the polls with Barack Obama, and Obama doesn’t seem to have yet got the normal poll ‘bounce’ one would expect from a week of Democratic National Convention coverage. So as long as he didn’t do anything disastrous, things were looking rather good for McCain.

Is Sarah Palin that disastrous step?

When I first saw the Sky News ticker announcement (standing in the foyer of one of our agencies, having just had a long meeting about a forthcoming campaign – and hence being out of the loop all afternoon. Hate being unplugged from the Internet …) I thought: shrewd choice. Female candidate will draw in disaffected Hillary supporters, and she’s young and different and unknown – adding glamour and vitality to the Republican ticket which is looking, in comparison to Obama, like the same old tired white men in suits.

Then I got back home and started to pick up the chatter (thanks again, Twitter) on how the news was being received. And already, people were making some excellent points, such as:

  • She’s been Governor of Alaska for only a year and a half, and before that a small town mayor. Bang goes McCain’s case of saying Obama is too young and inexperienced, since he has to now stand there and make the case that Palin is ready to step in at a moment’s notice. Obama’s spokesman was quick to speak: “Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency.”
  • Talking about that “moment’s notice” – this must surely focus much debate on McCain’s health. He’s 72 today (happy birthday!) and if he wins he will be by some way the oldest man elected to a first term in the White House. If anything happens … We get Palin. So suddenly, a lot of people will be thinking about just how robust and healthy John McCain is after all, and he starts to look like a risky proposition.
  • She’s untried and untested on the national stage. No one knows at this point whether she will become a huge star … or another Dan Quayle. Why take such a huge leap into the unknown? Is the McCain camp really feeling that things are sliding away from them that catestrophically?
  • She’s under investigation in Alaska for sacking a public safety commissioner – allegedly because he had not fired a state trooper who is Palin’s former brother-in-law, and who is in a custody battle with Palin’s sister.
  • And as for the “we’ll get the female vote now Hillary’s out of the way” – how simplistic, naive and cynical that turns out to be when you find that Palin is almost the anti-Hillary in her pro-life, pro-NRA, pro-Creationist teaching in schools positions. So former Hillary supporters are supposed to be so fickle that they’ll vote for any woman? How patronising.

It’s a huge gamble McCain’s just made here. It’s certainly grabbed the headlines and injected excitement into the Republican campaign at a critical moment, when they looked to be rather lost and in the shadows after the coronation of Obama. And who knows, after things settle down and she starts campaigning, this may yet prove to be an inspired choice that wins the Republicans a third term in the White House. Women may indeed flock to support her; the Democrats may be so timid about how to attack her without looking sexist that she gets a clear ride all the way to the VP’s residence. The naive and cynical may yet win out against the exubrent optimism that Obama panders. Of course, I’d be more confident that was the case if McCain had met Palin more than just once before he went shopping for a running mate last week.

It’s certainly bold, it’s certainly audacious – but right now it feels like overkill, a knee-jerk overreaction to the Obama threat, a desperate attempt to overcompensate but which instead does far more damage than the original problem. It’s so rash and daring that it gives the Democrats the ideal platform to start questioning McCain’s decision-making abilities, comparing and contrasting this decision with Obama’s widely praised decision to choose Joe Biden as his running mate.

The strange thing is that, as well as the DNC went this week, the best thing that may have happened for the Democrats this week is down to John McCain. But at the very least, his decision today means that we’re going to get something historic in the US elections come November: the first black president, or the first female vice-president.

Don’t you wish British politics had one ounce of this sort of excitement, instead of journalists reading the runes to decide who is in and who is out of the Brown and Miliband camps, or tracking down Cameron’s stolen bicycle? And if you do wish that – how do we (the people and the politicians) make it so?


  1. 1 Yes you can, Mr President « andrewlewin: let me think about that …

    […] the end of August, I wrote a post “McCain’s all-or-nothing choice” in which I discussed John McCain’s campaign and his selection of Vice Presidential […]

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