Sen. John McCain should be thrilled with the Washington crowd’s lukewarm reaction to his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, in an election about change; they are exactly the sort of folks he should want to be miffed.
If Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the “Dick Cheney” pick for Democrats for vice president - an older, experienced Washington hand - then Mrs. Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska, is Mr. McCain’s own version of Sen. Barack Obama: a youthful agent of change to balance out Mr. McCain’s own time in Washington.
In other words, I’ll see your “change” and raise you “shake up.”
“I’ve spent the last few months looking for a running mate who can best help me shake up Washington and make it start working again for the people that are counting on us,” Mr. McCain said in announcing Mrs. Palin as his running mate in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday. “I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies.”
In the hours after her selection, newspapers quoted some unnamed Republican strategists and congressional aides griping - but Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republicans’ chief deputy whip, said a tepid Washington welcome only bolsters Mrs. Palin’s reform credentials.
“Sarah Palin vetoed the Alaska portion of the money for the Bridge to Nowhere. That sort of reflects who she is - she is going to shake things up in Washington,” he said. “Frankly, that’s what America wants.”
“I think it’s an epic choice,” he said.
She doesn’t have major foreign policy experience, has not had the years of vetting by a national press corps that Washington politicians have had, and faces on ongoing investigation into the disciplining of a state trooper involved in a custody battle with her sister.
What she does have, put simply, is a history-making candidacy, a made-for-politics personal story and the reformer’s credentials to allow Mr. McCain to go head-to-head with Mr. Obama’s message of change.
She unseated a sitting Republican governor in a primary by running against the Republican establishment in Alaska. If anything, her zeal for busting pork-barrel spending may outstrip Mr. McCain’s. And she’s spent her time in office fighting for ethics reform.
For Mr. McCain, running against the head wind created by President Bush’s unpopularity, he must hope some of Mrs. Palin’s anti-establishment credentials rub off on him.
With one swift move Mr. McCain managed to sweep the powerful images from Mr. Obama’s Thursday night nomination acceptance speech off the television screens and replace them with Mrs. Palin and her family on stage in Dayton - minus her oldest son, who she reminded her audience is poised to deploy to Iraq with the U.S. Army in two weeks.
Still, the risks are plentiful.
Her political resume is incredibly slight when compared with that of Mr. Biden. And she has spent her time in government far from the vetting eyes of the Washington press corps, meaning there will be plenty of digging that could turn up something.
Her first gaffes will be magnified into conventional wisdom.
And her lack of national stage experience works against Mr. McCain’s argument that the White House is no place for on-the-job training. She’ll have to be nearly perfect in her early outings to convince voters she’s ready.
But she’ll also be a tough figure to attack, as Democrats found out Friday morning as they searched for the proper tone to respond. Initially they took a dismissive approach, bordering on insulting.
“Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency,” said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, saying Mrs. Palin is also an extension of President Bush’s policies.
Ninety minutes later the campaign put out a far more measured statement from Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden congratulating her, and later in the day Mr. Obama told reporters the first statement was the result of his campaign having “hair triggers.”
We’ll know how popular a pick Mrs. Palin is by the number of congressional candidates begging to have her campaign for them.
Mr. Cantor said Mrs. Palin’s presence on the ticket will also be a boost for energy issues, and could even put the issue of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the table again.
“There is no better advocate for that,” the congressman said.
Mrs. Palin in her remarks yesterday said she expects to lengthen the cracks Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made in the glass ceiling by narrowly losing to Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination, and there’s little doubt Mrs. Palin complicates Mr. Obama’s electoral calculations.
Mrs. Clinton said Mrs. Palin’s selection was “historic” and added an important voice to the debate, even though she said Mrs. Palin “would take America in the wrong direction.”
One certainty is that it’s now a guarantee that history will be made: Barring something bizarre, the next administration will have either the first black man in the Oval Office or a woman in the No. 2 slot.