Why Democrats needn't rush to trash Sarah Palin.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Aug. 30 2008 1:30 AM

Where's the Rest of That Moose?

Why Democrats needn't rush to trash Sarah Palin.

80_thehasbeen

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The New Frontier: Flush from a pitch-perfect convention week and a crescendo of can-you-top-this speeches by Bidens, Clintons, and Obamas, Democrats in Denver had no trouble bounding out of bed Friday morning. After running up the score at Invesco Field on Thursday night, our biggest worry was getting penalized for excessive celebration. Then, just when the party thought its luck couldn't get any better, John McCain's choice of an obscure rookie governor sent Democrats popping champagne corks all over again. Giddy partisans rushed to the phones and microphones to trash Palin as "Geraldine Quayle."

I wasn't so quick to jump for joy. For one thing, I would have rather spent the fall poking fun at Mitt Romney, and got my hopes up when his stock soared to 80% in the political futures market shortly before the Palin announcement. Alas, passing up Romney deprives us of the perfect slogan: "Four More Houses!" While we weren't able to elect the first presidential android, his supporters and I can take heart that thanks to his campaign, there are now 4.7 million cracks in that plastic ceiling.

For me, the choice of Sarah Palin cuts a little too close to home. She was born a few miles from where I grew up, went to junior college in my hometown, and has now eclipsed Deep Throat and Larry Craig as the most famous graduate in University of Idaho history. It's as if the McCain campaign were micro-targeting my wife's demographic: exercise-crazed hockey moms from Idaho who married their high school sweethearts. The Obama campaign can rest assured – universes don't get much smaller than that.

As governor, Sarah Palin helped stop the Bridge to Nowhere. Now she's the Candidate from Nowhere. That's a steep climb for any candidate, even one who shoots moose and runs marathons. Before every VP selection, the only people willing to talk about the choice don't know anything. With Palin, that was still pretty much the case even after her announcement. Republican congressman Mike Simpson doesn't know her, but told the Idaho Statesman, "She's got Idaho roots, and an Idaho woman is tough."

If national security experience is the measure of a potential Commander-in-Chief, Palin has an extraordinarily high burden to prove. To paraphrase the words Lloyd Bentsen used to destroy the last surprise vice-presidential choice, she's no Joe Biden.

But for a host of reasons, Democrats needn't rush to run down Sarah Palin. Obama seemed to come to that conclusion Friday afternoon, striking the right tone after Democrats had gone after her with a few early hip checks. Both Obama and Biden called Palin to wish her good luck, but not too much. Hillary Clinton echoed that Palin's "historic nomination" would nevertheless take the country in the wrong direction.

Why hold back? First, as Obama himself demonstrated in winning the Democratic nomination, 2008 is a tough year to handicap the relative virtues of being a fresh face and having experience. The natural reflex is to brand Palin as too great a risk. But McCain is practically begging our side to throw him into that briar patch. Convinced he can't win as a candidate of the status quo, he wants everyone to know he's willing to take a risk.

Second, anyone going after Palin for the important experience she lacks had better be careful not to dismiss the value of the experiences she does have. Raising a large family and running a small state may not be sufficient qualifications to assume the Presidency. But we're not going to get far by minimizing those jobs, either. Here again, the McCain campaign may be hoping that Democrats – or the press – will come down too hard on Palin, and spark a backlash that turns her into a working mom's hero.

Third, and most important, voters don't need our help to figure this out. In the end, they'll be the best and toughest judge of whether or not Sarah Palin is ready. Back in 1988, the Dukakis campaign actually ran an ad against Dan Quayle. It didn't work, and wasn't necessary. In any case, Quayle had only himself to blame for falling flat on the national stage. By straining so hard to compare himself to JFK on the campaign trail, he practically wrote Bentsen's famous line for him.

In fact, Quayle never recovered from his debut at the '88 convention, when voters witnessed his deer-in-the-headlights moment. Over the next few days and in the vice-presidential debate, Palin's reputation will be shaped in much the same way – by whether she can take the heat, or looks like a moose hunter in the headlights. … 1:38 A.M. (link)

Friday, August 22, 2008

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Spoiler Alert: When the McCain campaign floated the idea of a pro-choice running mate, social conservatives reacted with the same outrage they've been rehearsing for 40 years: Some threatened to bolt at the convention; others said they'd rather lose the election than expand the Republican tent. "If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it's not going to be pretty," Rush Limbaugh warned.

But the most explosive threat comes from former right-hand-of-God Ralph Reed, in his new novel, Dark Horse, a "political thriller" that imagines this very scenario. Spoiler alert! Just hours after forcing his party to swallow a pro-choice VP, the Republican presidential nominee in Reed's pot-boiler is brutally murdered by radical Islamic terrorists at the GOP Convention. Reed's implicit threat to Republican candidates: The Christian right has so much power, they can even get someone else's God to strike you down.

Reed doesn't just kill off the character who named a pro-choice running mate—he has the running mate go on to destroy the Republican Party. For the Republicans (and the reader), the plot goes from bad to worse. With the pro-choice figure—an African-American war hero named David Petty—now at the top of the Republican ticket, evangelical leaders throw their support behind Calif. Gov. Bob Long, who just lost the Democratic nomination at a brokered convention and decided to run as an independent after going through a religious conversion in the chapel of the hospital where his daughter nearly lost her baby. Petty offends evangelicals, while Long—obviously a quick study—wows them with the depth of his knowledge of the Bible.

Petty's candidacy implodes when a YouTube clip shows him telling Iowans that his support for the GOP abortion plank is only symbolic. Days before the election, voters also learn that as defense secretary, Petty convinced a no-bid contractor to hire a lobbyist who moonlights as his mistress and madam of an exclusive Washington brothel.

Reed's clear warning: If you put a pro-choice Republican on the ticket, don't be surprised when he turns out to be a lying, cheating, no-bid-earmarking john.

By contrast, Reed's evangelicals love Long, who woos them with parables and waffles on abortion. "I've heard through the grapevine that he's become a Christian," says televangelist Andy Stanton, a composite of Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. "He may be someone we can do business with." With Stanton's enthusiastic blessing, Long sweeps the South and beats Petty 2-to-1 among evangelicals.

All three candidates come up short of 270 electoral votes, so the election goes to the House of Representatives. Even though Republicans control the House, Petty loses when Republican members of the evangelical caucus support Long instead. The message to McCain: Social conservatives will gladly support a maverick, as long as he says what they want to hear on their issues.

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