This "Hail Sarah" pass won't do much to help John McCain get into the end zone. He'll win or lose for other reasons.
Happy birthday, Johnny Mac! You're 72 now, a cancer survivor, and a presidential candidate who has said on many occasions that the most important criteria for picking a vice president is whether he or she could immediately step in if something happened to the president. Your campaign against Barack Obama is based on the simple idea that he is unready to be president. So you've picked a running mate who a year and a half ago was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of 8,500 people. You've selected a potential leader of the free world who knows little or nothing about the major issues of the day beyond energy. Oh, and she's being probed in her state for lying and abuse of power.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's debut in Dayton on Friday was good political theater. She delivered a pitch-perfect speech (presumably written by McCain's ghost writer, Mark Salter) with a panache that suggests she could be a natural on the national stage. The well-kept secret of her selection let the GOP step on the story of Obama's boffo acceptance speech in Denver. It's not hard to see why she appealed to McCain: her middle-class roots; her older son headed for Iraq with the U.S. Army; her opposition to the earmarked "bridge to nowhere," which is arguably the only domestic issue that gets McCain excited. If camera-ready Palin helps McCain close the gender gap and win in November, she'll be history's hockey mom.
But there's a reason that rookies rarely score hat tricks. It's not her lack of name recognition; America loves a fresh face, especially one that's a cross between a Fox anchor and a character on "Northern Exposure," the old TV show about an Alaska town about the size of Wasilla. The problem is that politics, like all professions, isn't as easy as it looks. Palin's odds of emerging unscathed this fall are slim. In fact, she's been all but set up for failure.
"What is it exactly that the vice president does all day?" Palin offhandedly asked CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow in July. Kudlow explained that the job has become more important in recent years. Palin knows the energy crisis well, even if her claim on "Charlie Rose" that Alaska's untapped resources can significantly ease it is unsupported by the facts. But what does she know about Iranian nukes, health care or the future of entitlement programs? And that's just a few of the 20 or so national issues on which she will be expected to show basic competence. The McCain camp will have to either let her wing it based on a few briefing memos (highly risky) or prevent her from taking questions from reporters (a confession that she's unprepared). Either way, she's going to belly-flop at a time when McCain can least afford it.
Even on energy, Palin has her work cut out for her. First she has to convince McCain to do a 180 and support drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Her much-repeated sound bite that ANWR is only the size of the Los Angeles airport and thus not environmentally destructive sounds good, but won't do much to counter the argument Obama made in his acceptance speech, which is that drilling is only a "stopgap" measure for achieving energy independence. Palin will benefit from very low expectations in her debate with Joe Biden, but she's going to have to have a photographic memory for new information to avoid getting creamed.
Governors often run for president, but only after many months of prep work on what they might confront in the White House. The last governor chosen for vice president was Spiro Agnew in 1968, and he was the governor of Maryland, which is right over the line from Washington, D.C., not thousands of miles away. Veep candidates with extensive Washington experience like Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were nonetheless grilled on policy and proved a drag on the ticket when they looked unpresidential.
I covered Ferraro in 1984 for NEWSWEEK. The day Walter Mondale chose her as the first woman candidate for high office was exciting and historic. But the Queens congresswoman was quickly swamped by tough questions (especially from Ted Koppel) about her readiness for the presidency and by ethical queries about her husband, a real-estate developer. A lengthy news conference she held to answer the mounting questions did not go well.
Reporters are already winging their way to Alaska to probe what Alaskans call "Wootengate," the story of the dismissal of former Public Safety commissioner Walt Monegan, who says he was pressured to dismiss state trooper Mike Wooten. Wooten was engaged in a nasty custody fight with his ex-wife, who is Palin's sister. As soon as Palin was selected, the Web was already buzzing with Monegan's claims that Palin is lying about her role in the personnel matter. And the beautifully named Steve Branchflower, the special counsel appointed by the state legislature to probe the mess, has opened a tip line for Alaskans who might know if the governor and possible vice president of the United States abused her power.
Branchflower's investigation won't be completed until after the election, but the facts so far aren't good for the governor. Palin says she had "nothing to do" with the Wooten matter and that she fired Monegan because she wanted to move the department in another direction, but an audiotape of a phone conversation featuring another state official, Frank Bailey, casts doubt on her account. Because the media loves scandal of any kind, especially one involving the potential use of public power to settle private family scores, this story will prove a distraction to the McCain campaign all fall long.
It's hard to know how many women will flock to the GOP ticket because of Palin. She is a far-right conservative who supported Pat Buchanan over George W. Bush in 2000. She thinks global warming is a hoax and backs the teaching of creationism in public schools. Women are not likely to be impressed by her opposition to abortion even in the case of rape and incest. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 56 percent of female voters, despite Ferraro's candidacy on the Democratic side. The balance between work and family, always a ticklish issue, will be brought into bold relief by the fact that the Palins' fifth child, Trig, was born with Down syndrome in April. Todd Palin, a commercial fisherman, may shoulder the bulk of the child-rearing duties in their family. But many voters will nonetheless wonder whether Palin should undertake the rigors of the vice presidency (and perhaps the presidency) while caring for a disabled infant. The subject will no doubt arise on "Oprah" and in other venues.
One way or another, an African-American or a woman will hold high office next year for the first time. That's progress. And it's possible that Palin is so talented that she will prove to be the face of the GOP's future. More likely, this "Hail Sarah" pass won't do much to help John McCain get into the end zone. He'll win or lose for other reasons.