The Palin Pick

THE PALIN PICK…Howdy folks–I’m a new editor here at the Monthly, and as someone who lived in and reported on Alaska for the entirety of Sarah Palin’s tenure as governor (until a couple months ago), I feel like I should jump in here. I’m less quick than Steve to dismiss McCain’s pick–the Palin choice does have a gimmicky quality to it, but Obama supporters should still be concerned. I’ll get to why in a minute. First, a little history:

Palin was elected governor in 2006 in what was, for Alaska, an epochal election. The previous August, a bribery scandal in the Republican-dominated state legislature (which has since ensnared Sen. Ted Stevens, who was indicted on related charges in July) had dealt a serious blow to the state’s Republican establishment, which had more or less run Alaskan politics since the ’60s. Palin was uniquely positioned to take advantage of that–she had been a persona non grata with many party leaders since two years earlier, when she blew the whistle on the state Republican Party chairman for a conflict of interest when both of them were on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (Ben Stevens, Ted Stevens’s son and the former president of the state Senate, once personally called Palin to tell her she was a “Pollyanna” for her concerns over his ethics). Running as an insurgent in the Republican primary, she walloped Frank Murkowski, the incumbent and previously a two-decade veteran of the U.S. Senate (Murkowksi has so far remained clear of the corruption probe–Alaskans mostly just didn’t like the guy). Her election is credited by both reformist Republicans and Democrats in Alaska with opening the door for new political blood in a state that badly needs it. It’s unlikely that either Ted Stevens or Rep. Don Young, both of whom are fighting for their lives in this year’s elections after holding office for the majority of Alaska’s statehood, would be doing so if Palin hadn’t won.

In short, Palin can legitimately claim the maverick reformist credentials that McCain himself has long since lost. Her pro-life record helps McCain with the Republican base, her gender might lure away a few Hillary bitter-enders, and her youth goes a little way towards compensating one of McCain’s major weaknesses. Palin also manages the Obama-esque feat of commanding a great deal of popularity among people who don’t really know what she stands for–Dave Dittman, an Anchorage-based pollster, who has done a lot of polling and thinking about this, pointed out to me several months ago that Palin was maintaining a 85 percent approval rating among Alaskan voters even when her policies (particularly a natural gas line deal that has been a signature ambition of her administration) polled far short of that, and even when voters had trouble accurately describing her political leanings. She also pretty much guarantees a McCain victory in her home state, where Obama has been polling astoundingly well (Alaska hasn’t gone for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson).

On the other side of the balance sheet, Palin’s been in the governor’s office less than two years, and her only executive experience before that was her stint as mayor of a small town (coming from Alaska–where one-party dominance and a massive oil economy eventually make it hard for even the most upright Republican politician to stay clean–this probably isn’t a bad thing). A short resume isn’t a great target for Obama, but it also robs McCain of what’s been a pretty key talking point for him so far. Back home, Palin’s entangled in an investigation into a controversial firing incident, which has nicked the otherwise unassailable approval ratings she’s maintained since she took office. Still, it’s not much compared to the spectacular corruption Alaskans are used to by now, and it doesn’t seem likely to gain much more traction that Obama’s real estate troubles.

Obama’s best bet is probably to play up Palin’s conventionally conservative ideology, which is often masked by her considerable charisma–it doesn’t seem terribly likely to me that voters who are disgruntled over what they see as the misogynistic underpinnings of Obama’s victory will go en masse for a pro-life candidate. Other than that, there aren’t a lot of handholds here at the outset.

That said, it’s a risky move for McCain to go with someone so totally un-tested in national politics when the race is still arguably Obama’s to lose–the vice presidential debates should be fun to watch. Alaska is also a pretty idiosyncratic state, politics-wise–what worked for Palin there won’t necessarily transfer to the country as a whole. Palin is coming in with a more solid array of positives than most of McCain’s alternatives, but they don’t seem to have anywhere to go but down.