John McCain can forget about trying to make a campaign issue out of Barack Obama's relatively thin foreign policy resume. In an effort to blunt Obama's postconvention momentum, McCain made history Friday by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the first woman to be nominated for vice president by the GOP. It is a risky move that stunned even some party leaders who fear that voters will have trouble imagining the former beauty queen as commander in chief, if it should ever come to that.
The 44-year-old Palin, a former small-town mayor serving her first term as governor, has no experience in foreign policy, a fact Democrats wasted no time pouncing on. McCain had better hope she is a fast learner who can be brought up to speed on foreign policy and other issues before she faces veteran Democratic Sen. Joe Biden in this fall's one vice presidential debate.
McCain is betting the farm on gender. He is gambling that his choice will appeal to women voters, particularly disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, and create an air of excitement at this week's Republican National Convention in St. Paul. But party leaders are concerned that the choice of Palin could complicate McCain's central attack line against his Democratic opponent — Obama's lack of experience on national security issues.
Although McCain is a familiar figure to most Americans, he has muddled his political identity this year by changing long-held positions to appeal to his party's conservative base. It will be interesting to see how he presents himself at the convention.
The presumptive Republican nominee for president has his work cut out for him. Obama landed some hard blows against him at the Denver convention. Somehow, McCain has to recognize the Bush administration and then distance himself from an unpopular two-term president who led the country into an unnecessary war, presided over a soaring federal deficit triggered in part by irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy, and disregarded fundamental constitutional protections. The Arizona senator can only hope there will be relatively few television watchers at the end of a three-day holiday weekend. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are scheduled to speak at the beginning of the convention, although the timing may be affected by Hurricane Gustav.
If the Democrats achieved anything last week, they wrapped the last eight years around McCain and warned he would bring more of the same. This is McCain's opportunity to break out of that straitjacket and reassert the independence and wit that once made him such an attractive candidate to a wide swath of voters that included independents and conservative Democrats.
This may be odd advice for a Republican convention, but it would be a mistake to spend this week offering up the usual sound bites against abortion, taxes and activist judges. McCain has an opportunity to lure away some Democrats who aren't sold on Obama or are disappointed Hillary Clinton is not their party's nominee. Throwing red meat to Republican conservatives could drive away those voters.
McCain, an American hero and former prisoner of war, can be expected to emphasize his foreign policy experience and qualifications to be commander in chief. But polls already show most voters believe he is more qualified than Obama in those areas. A better strategy would be for the candidate who cannot remember how many houses he owns to show some empathy for Americans struggling to make ends meet and offer concrete solutions beyond extending tax cuts for the wealthy. That would be of particular interest in Florida, where job losses in July ranked the highest in the country and the unemployment rate is the highest in 13 years. Fighting to eliminate congressional earmarks in the federal budget, however commendable, does not resonate with homeowners behind on their mortgages.
If there is any suspense in Minnesota this week, it is watching to see which McCain will show up: The straight-talking maverick willing to oppose ethanol subsidies in Iowa, forge a reasonable compromise on immigration, pass campaign finance reform and embrace a troop surge in Iraq despite war fatigue among most Americans? Or the candidate who has gone conventionally conservative since wrapping up the Republican nomination, talking up school vouchers, tax cuts and free-market fixes for a broken health care system that does not respond to conventional market pressures?
Much of McCain's popularity can be traced to his former image. Emphasizing the new one may draw loud applause in the convention arena this week, but it won't help him in November.