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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, September 01, 2008

First Big Test: McCain = FAIL, Obama = WIN

by folkbum

One of the reasons why people suggest that candidates for president ought to have experience is so that we can judge what they will do in some other situation based on what they have done in previous, similar situations. The first big decision any nominee makes is to select a running mate. Now that both major-party candidates have made their choices, let's see what that says about the way they will govern.

1. Who wants all the information before making a decision? Perhaps the single most damning thing about John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin is that she was not fully vetted. In the six months since he wrapped up the nomination and developed his first list of possible second fiddles, no one from McCain's team, apparently, ever visited Alaska until this weekend, and we know McCain spent only about 15 minutes with Palin prior to Thursday when he offered her the job. On the other hand, we know that Obama's vetting was so thorough that Virginia Sentaor Jim Webb opted out of the tedious process. Chet Edwards describes the nature of the vetting here. McCain of course has a tendency to make decisions first and ask questions later--it's part of his personal philosophy--and we may well see him grow to regret making this one without enough though. Winner? Obama.

2. Who's willing to go against the party? John McCain, who claims to be a "maverick," wanted to select former Democrat Joe Lieberman to be his vice president. It's pretty clear from the available evidence that Lieberman was Plan A, but the Republican Party was basically having none of it. McCain had a number of good options as Plan B, but McCain bent to the will of his Party in abandoning Lieberman. Barack Obama, on the other hand, got a ton of pressure from all over the Democratic Party--the party that, in many ways, is still the party of Bill Clinton--to go with a "unity" ticket by selecting Hillary Clinton. Obama knew he wouldn't be able to work with her, so he made a choice that was good for him--Joe Biden--and bucked the party. In future decisions, we could expect Obama to go against the party when necessary, and McCain to whither in the face of pressure. Winner? Obama.

3. Who's reaching out to the middle? There's the story going around that Barack Obama is "the most liberal senator." What a coincidence, Obama clinches the nomination and gets graced with that title, just like John Kerry in 2004. Do you really think that, on balance, Obama is more liberal than, say, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold? Vermont's (Socialst Party!) Bernie Sanders? Ted Kennedy? Regardless, Obama did move toward the center with his choice of Joe Biden. McCain, on the other hand, after being denied the choice of Lieberman, picked an extremist instead. Palin is at the far right of the Republican Party, and there is little doubt that her selection is designed to appease the Dobson-loving mouth-foaming social conservative wing of the party. This suggests that in the future Obama would look toward the center when appropriate, while McCain feels the need placate the extremist wing of his party. Winner? Obama.

4. Who puts politics ahead of country? Everyone knows that one of the most coveted voting blocs this fall is Clinton voters. Even McCain's advisors have been saying that if they can win Hillary's voters they win, and if they don't, they lose. It seems clear that candidates bearing similar qualifications to Sarah Palin--such as Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who apparently thought he had it in the bag enough to cancel his events for the weekend, and is now, consequently, pretty angry--are all male. There seems little about Palin that Pawlenty doesn't have, except in terms of gender. Even conservatives, as in the ubiquitous Ranesh Ponnuru quote ("Can anyone say with a straight face that Palin would have gotten picked if she were a man?"), have noted the cynical nature of a Palin pick. (Others have pointed out that both the recent tenor of the McCain campiagn--from the negative ads to the candidate bound to a few strict talking points to the Palin pick--all bear the dirty-politics stamp of Karl Rove's protégé Steve Schmidt.) Palin's record as governor--according to Republicans who know her best--is someone uninterested in the hard work of governing, but she might sway Clinton voters. The historians have questions, too, but, hey, she might sway Clinton voters. And the initial plan was to send Palin into places in Ohio and Pennsylvania that voted heavily for Clinton in the Democratic primary--a plan that had to be abandoned because those oh-so-tolerant Republican audiences were booing Palin's mentions of Clinton in her speeches. Obama didn't make an obvious ploy for the Clinton bloc, in favor of someone he would work better with--and who has the depth and expertise required in the job. So in the opening months of the next administration, McCain will try for the expedient and popular, while Obama will take the smart choice. Winner? Obama.

5. Who's really looking for clean government? Twenty years ago, one of the times Joe Biden quoted British MP Neil Kinnock, he didn't credit the man. No question, it was plagiarism, and he was rightly run out of that primary. Since then, Biden has gaffed his way through two more decades of campaigns and pressers. But no one has ever tried to claim that Biden abuses power. Sure, he stands up for the home-state credit-card industry over the little guy (grrrr!), but you can't say he's not relatively--to use one of Biden's choice words--clean. Palin was, as noted, not fully vetted and remains in the middle of a scandal with active and open investigations going on. I encourage you to read Josh Marshall's piece on what all that entails and why it matters. McCain could have picked someone without the whiff of scandal about her (though Carly Fiorina, the next woman on the list, is not scandal-free either). So in years to come, we can imagine the McCain will be unafraid to install the scandal-plagued in the highest offices in the nation, while Obama will not. Winner? Obama.

6. Who wants the best that's out there? I know that one of the rationales or narratives being floated about the Palin pick is that Joe Biden has to be very careful in his debate with her not to come off as a bully. Personlly, I think it's ridiculous to claim that a woman can't compete head-to-head in a debate with a man--it's not only insulting to women, but it was proven decidedly false this spring when Hillary Clinton more than held her own against Barack Obama. Problem is, Sarah Palin may really not be the sharpest crayon in the box. Of course she's not going to have the depth of knowledge that the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee does on certain matters, but she also apparently thinks the Pledge of Allegiance was written by the founding fathers (see question 11). If McCain's people didn't even turn up this Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly's group) questionnaire during the vetting--I suppose McCain has expressed trouble over doing a Google before--that's one bad thing. If they did see this, and still opted for Palin, then that really says something about McCain's standards. Winner? Obama.

In the end, we have to look back on what both candidates said about who they wanted as vice president. Obama was clear that he wanted someone who would not just win him an election but who could help him govern by challenging him, debating him, and working through the issues of the day with him. Biden fits that bill. McCain always said he wanted someone who was qualified to take over, given that he is "older than dirt." Even conservatives are noting that "McCain is essentially telling the world that he doesn't really need a Vice President. [. . .] McCain has thus made a purely political play without regard for the governance concerns." He's clearly not showing the judgment and seriousness a president needs.

McCain has failed the first test. There's no way we can reward him with the presidency.

Also, bonus video that perhaps explains McCain's choice:

I didn't want to give it any credence, but I watched it--pay attention to the way he fiddles with his wedding ring while appraising Palin's, er, assets.

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