Arizona Sen. John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate is an effort to polish a badge that's been tarnished during this presidential campaign. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey summed it up McCain's problem last week at the Democratic National Convention in Denver when he noted that McCain has voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time: "That's not a maverick, that's a sidekick."
Being a maverick in a time of change is cred, and few disputed that characterization of McCain in 2000, when he bucked the party's powerful to challenge Bush in the primaries. It's an especially important reputation to have where McCain lives, in the West. Not only is "maverick" cowboy lingo and evocative of imagery that has boosted other western conservatives — Dubya at his Crawford, Texas, "ranch," Ronald Reagan riding tall in the saddle and his claims to have been "an old horse soldier" — it's a reliable role for Western politicians who, like their constituents, don't want to be fenced in by traditional categories.
So with McCain now be called out for no longer being a maverick, the Palin pick seems designed to restore maverick status to the campaign with a single quick draw. The move is a gamble. The pick is a mate who exemplifies the qualities McCain used to possess and has largely shed for the sake of ambition. Having been photographed hugging Bush, he's realized that the Beltway and the Bush years are a bridge to nowhere. He's now ready to pose for pictures with a feisty sidekick who's never been civilized — or corrupted — by the East.
The West has produced a number of hybrid politicians and reformers who have defied labels. Palin is not the only maverick Western governor. There's flat-topped, cowboy-booted Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat whose popularity in a Republican state is often called "unlikely." Think of California's "post-partisan" Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backs McCain but who is much greener on the environment and has hinted broadly that he'd serve in an Obama administration.
And dipping back into the past, there's Washington's own first woman governor, Dixy Lee Ray, a weird kind of hybrid in her own right, the butch, nuke-loving, eco-bashing Democrat who had served in the Nixon administration and was more popular with Republicans than her own party. Dixy stands as a warning for what can happen to mavericks. Elected with strong support from liberal women because of her gender in 1976, the electorate quickly soured on her and she was humiliatingly defeated in the primary when she ran for re-election four years later. Mavericks operate without much margin — by definition they are anomalies who make enemies in at least two directions. If they don't deliver, there is no safety net.
Palin has delivered a little in Alaska but seems unproven after less than two years. But in that time she's gained enough in image to be of value in sharpening McCain's spurs. At least for a news cycle or two.