An Alaska-sized gamble — and possibly a brilliant one

Our grizzled national political writer, an Obama supporter, found himself rooting for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during her coming-out party. Her choice by Sen. John McCain could be a game-changer — if she doesn't make any big mistakes between now and the election.
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Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Our grizzled national political writer, an Obama supporter, found himself rooting for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during her coming-out party. Her choice by Sen. John McCain could be a game-changer — if she doesn't make any big mistakes between now and the election.

My reaction to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican vice-presidential nominee were undoubtedly similar to that of most others with a background in national politics.

When considering a running mate, a presidential nominee normally would ask these questions:

  • Is this person qualified, on the basis of knowledge and experience, to succeed to the presidency on short notice if called on to do so?
  • Would this person be able to hold his/her own with the opposition party's vice-presidential nominee in a nationally televised debate?
  • Does this person complement or shore up my own vulnerabilities (in policy, geography, among key constituencies) going into the fall campaign?
  • Would this person help me carry one or more key electoral states I otherwise might lose?
  • Would I feel comfortable and compatible with this person during not only the campaign but in the White House?

At first glance, the answers to those questions would have left Palin an also-ran among better known, strong possibilities such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and several others. Romney, I had thought, would be the wisest choice since he had proved a strong vote-getter in the primary season, had economic/financial knowledge McCain lacked, had governed successfully in a heavily Democratic state, and also was likely to at least hold his own in one-on-one faceoffs with Democratic vice-presidential nominee and seasoned Sen. Joe Biden.

The Obama campaign's first reaction to the Palin choice was to issue a condescending, dismissive press release mocking her experience and credentials.

McCain, I thought, had just made his first important decision as presidential nominee and blown it. I began mentally formulating jokes and one-liners:

  • This would be a titanic struggle between Hawaii (Sen. Barack Obama's home state) and Alaska for control of the Lower 48.
  • Palin was chosen because Alaska's three electoral votes matched those of Delaware (Biden's home state).
  • In a dramatic move, Palin, a high-school basketball star, might challenge Obama to one-on-one hoops or perhaps a matchup of her state-championship high-school team with Obama's Hawaii prep-school squad.
  • McCain, celebrating his 72nd birthday and a cancer survivor, wanted a relatively unknown and inexperienced 44-year-old running mate to underscore his own risk-taking temperament.

And so on.

Then I Googled Palin's background and began to learn more about her. As I did, I sobered up.

Here was a self-made woman with political and leadership skills. In a state known for corruption, she had — as a mayor, chair of a state commission, and governor — faced down at every stage the good-ole-boy network accustomed to running things. She had beaten better known candidates in her campaigns for office. She had called out and fired public officials for corruption. She had successfully taken on corporations, lobbyists, and special-interest types when they challenged her. She was pro-life and an NRA member but, nonethless, known for acknowledging the good faith of those who disagreed with her. Her husband, a commercial fisherman and pipeline worker, was a Steelworker. Palin herself was a former union member. They have five children, the oldest on his way to Iraq as an Army enlisted man, the youngest a Down Syndrome baby. Her parents, a teacher and school secretary, were hard working people who earned extra money by coaching school teams. She chaired a 50-state governors' natural resources committee. As McCain, she was known for speaking her mind directly and breaking with Republican party-line positions when she thought they were wrong. She was aggressive and smart as hell.

Then I witnessed the rally in Dayton, Ohio, at which McCain introduced her. She was more poised than McCain. She was direct, no-nonsense, speaking to constituencies beyond the Republican base, and clearly at home with herself and her role. She appealed to Sen. Hillary Clinton supporters to come on over and break the glass ceiling with her. I found myself rooting for her — just as I had for Obama and Biden the night before — as an underdog and outsider living out the American Dream. If I felt that way, I thought, millions of others might be having the same thoughts at that moment.

So. What seemed at first glance an improbable, out-of-the-blue political gamble — and perhaps a world-class blunder — began to appear to be a gamble, alright, but perhaps a brilliant one. The Obama campaign will issue more condescending put-downs at its peril.

Palin remains a huge risk. She could, during the campaign, blow up everything by displaying ignorance on a major issue in a debate with Biden or elsewhere. She pronounces, I noticed, nuclear as "nucular," same as President Bush after eight years in the White House.

Yet, if Palin proves credible and competent, she could provide a boost to the Republican ticket that no other candidate could. Her plain-roots background matches those of Obama and Biden. She knows and understands the Reagan Democratic and blue-collar voters who hesitated about Obama in the Democratic nominating contest. She will attract votes from women — no one knows how many — who might see Palin as their standard-bearer in the absence of Hillary Clinton from the Democratic ticket. One could see her having an appeal in the same middle-American constituencies to which Biden appeals. A McCain-Palin western ticket might give several percentage points to Republicans west of Kansas City. Even our own state of Washington might be put unexpectedly in play. Only California and Hawaii — if Palin proves to be the real thing — can be counted on with confidence by Obama-Biden.

Alaska's feisty, independent, plain-spoken, person-to-person politics will be quite familiar to Washingtonians pre-dating this state's high-tech, urbanized era.

Bottom line: If Palin is up to it, she should be a huge help to McCain. If not, McCain truly did blow the election this morning. In the short term, McCain successfully changed the subject only hours after Democrats' rousing Denver triumph. He will be having us watch next week's Republican convention, if only to watch and learn more about Palin.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of