Why is McCain's Palin choice surprising? The rules of winning modern American presidential campaigns dictate that a candidate pull to his or her base in the primary season, because primary voters are more ideological and have a disproportionate influence in low-turn out caucuses and primary contests. This gives evangelicals more than their share of power in the Republican universe, just as it gives labor unions and liberals enhanced power on the Democratic side.
In the general election, like a giant magnet, our political polarity reverses and candidates do best by wooing independents, undecideds, and non-ideological voters. Witness Obama's timely move to the center on issues such as oil drilling and limitation of liability for Telcos in the weeks leading up to the Denver convention. Obama's campaign strategists know that their liberal base has "nowhere to go" in November and that their time and resources are best spent trying to persuade undecided voters that the first-term senator has the maturity and gravitas to be a competent president.
By this standard, Sarah Palin makes no sense for the GOP ticket. At the precise moment when McCain must signal to non-evangelical independents that he will not be driven to make ideological choices, he picks a neophyte small-state (47th in U.S. population) governor who is unequivocally anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-sex education, Creationist, and pro-oil drilling, even in her state's most sensitive environmental areas.
Democrats should not be dismayed by the celebrations at the GOP convention hall and in evangelical circles. McCain's calculated risk to "play to the conservative base" just as the general election begins in earnest, shows that his campaign suffers from internal weaknesses that reflect the social and demographic divisions within the Republic Party itself. In short, he is wasting an opportunity to reach across the aisle and tap an independent running mate, such as Joe Lieberman, or even a centrist such as Tom Ridge. Because Palin's choice cannot possibly be justified on the basis of "the right experience for the job," we are left only with ideology as the prime motive.
Now, why should McCain's choice simultaneously surprise nobody who follows American politics? Precisely the qualities that make Palin controversial — her challenge to Alaska's GOP establishment, her thin résumé, her colorful family — mirror Senator McCain's political outlook. At his best, McCain is not afraid to light fires under the GOP establishment and cross the political divide in Congress to make deals on immigration and campaign finance reform. These same maverick tendencies encourage him to think outside the box when it comes to his VP choice.
Yet the same qualities that make McCain a valuable member of the U.S. Senate work against him as a potential chief executive. In the Oval Office, we want a leader who is calm, deliberate, listens to multiple points of view, takes his time making important choices, and weighs his options. Ultimately, we want an individual who is not afraid to go against the grain of his party's ideology — much as President Clinton did on NAFTA and welfare reform.
In choosing Gov. Palin as his VP, McCain not only displayed hair-trigger decision-making, but he damaged his chances to gain the White House and accomplish his political agenda.