What do you do when your party seems to be going down like the S.S. Titanic? Desperate times call for desperate measures. For the Republican Party apparently desperate times does not mean something pragmatic like actually changing the party’s orthodoxy into something that might look mainstream. John McCain’s hope for winning this election thus depends on a few gambles:
- That a disciplined Obama campaign makes some fatal mistake between now and the election
- That the racist factor in American politics is much higher than what is being communicated to pollsters
- That some vague and largely unsubstantiated image of John McCain as a maverick will give independents a reason to vote for him. (Never mind that in real life, most of us want nothing to do with mavericks.)
- That some fresh face on the ticket will distract voters from the disastrous policies that he is advocating
Following the Democratic convention, the Obama-Biden ticket picked up a predictable bounce in the polls. Most likely, much of this bounce will recede after the conclusion of the Republican convention. However, overall the polls will likely continue to show Obama ahead in the popular vote by a worst a couple percentage points. These national polls though overlook the far more important calculation: electoral votes. What matters is not so much the margin of his victory in the popular vote but the margin in the Electoral College.
Pollster.com provides a reality check. Based on an average of recent state polls, if the election were held today, Obama would have 260 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. McCain would have 179. That leaves 99 electoral votes in the toss up category. What is the likelihood that McCain could claim 91 of those 99 electoral votes? The answer is clear: without changing the dynamics of the race, almost no chance.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is working hard to pick up the remainder of the swing states. It is not just Obama’s message and personality that are working this magic. It is also lots of advertising and many people walking door to door to sign up and persuade voters. Even red states like Virginia and North Carolina are potential Democratic pickups this year. This has been unheard of for at least a generation.
McCain’s surprise pick of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate is a clever parry to try to change these dynamics, particularly in the swing states where independent voters are increasingly drawn to Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship. Ms. Palin certainly gives us political types plenty to talk about. Those of us who spend our free time doing things like actually checking her record have plenty of concerns. Ms. Palin can perhaps bring a message of change, but she brings few bipartisan credentials. Thankfully for McCain, at least initially most Americans are more tuned in toward personality rather than issues. Palin comes across as fresh and spunky change agent. McCain’s hope is that these factors will persuade many voters to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket on the assumption that it will offer change.
John McCain also realizes that he is no Ronald Reagan. Obama is the Democratic equivalent of Ronald Reagan, and in my opinion the most eloquent and articulate political speaker of his generation. Sarah Palin is not naturally eloquent but she does radiate feistiness. She is McCain’s attempt to respond in an area where he is hopelessly outclassed. In that sense, her pick was perhaps not too surprising.
Palin also serves another important purpose: rallying dispirited Republican voters in a year when many are inclined to sit out the election. In particular, she energizes the socially conservative wing of the party with her no-compromise and some would say extreme stands on issues like abortion.
The dangers in a Palin vice presidency though are real. Yet, like The Wizard of Oz, her smokescreen is easy to penetrate, something I expect Joe Biden will do amply well in their vice presidential debate. Palin may have lots of personality, but her stands on many issues would make most mainstream Americans recoil. Her feistiness though is in reality hubris. Those who can perceive past her former cheerleader and sportscaster image realize that hubris is what got the Republican Party into its current predicament. In that sense while she is a new and younger face, in many ways she represents more of the same stupidity.
Neither McCain nor Palin can credibly offer a steady hand at the nation’s wheel. The problem with being a maverick is that by definition you are inclined toward unpredictable or obstinate behavior. Many may not like Obama’s positions, but it is hard to find issues on which he was for something before he was against it. (Campaign finance reform is one of the few that come to mind.) Generally, he is consistent and thoughtful, but he is not beyond changing a position if the situation changes. On the other hand, McCain’s record is rife with waffling and inconsistency. John Kerry never flip flopped the way John McCain has.
I suspect I am like most voters in that I want a clear understanding of where a candidate will lead us before I will vote for him or her. In his acceptance speech last week Obama clearly articulated that vision. You may not like it, but at least you know what it is. All we know about McCain and Palin’s vision is that they are likely to be abrasive if not abusive people in office. If the country is likely to tack in any direction under them, it will not be toward the middle. Their tendency toward being mavericks is no substitute for leadership and judgment. Instead, it is a red flag that indicates their lack of these virtues. I am far more concerned about McCain’s tendency toward impulsiveness and anger than I am about Palin’s, but knowing that she also has petty and vindictive tendencies is hardly reassuring. It suggests that if McCain could not fulfill his term she would be more of the same, of him. This is a very scary thought.
I doubt Palin’s elevation to vice presidential candidate will markedly change the dynamics of this race. Americans know what they do not want, and that is more of what we endured these last eight years. Neither McCain nor Palin can make a plausible case that the next four years would look that much different from the last eight, except possibly it would be done in a shriller manner than the generally taciturn Bush. Thus, Palin becomes yet the latest attempt by the GOP to put lipstick on its pig.
Look behind the Palin façade.