In putting Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the McCain ticket today, the campaign has largely declawed Senator Joseph Biden, reinforced McCain's carefully-constructed image as a maverick, appealed to the base and made a play for Senator Clinton's supporters. All the McCain camp needs in order to advance these seemingly contradictory objectives is for the media to take only a cursory examination of Palin's positions and experience.
Palin does have a track record of challenging the politics-as-usual heterodoxy, such as her move to oppose a much-commented-on "bridge to nowhere" in her home state of Alaska. She has also pushed through fiscal reforms that appeal to the Republican base and been a consistent opponent of Roe v. Wade. There are substantive reasons for why the base quickly applauded McCain's veep selection.
In addition, Senator Barack Obama's running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, will have to calibrate his aggressiveness in future debates with Palin. Should Biden-who is a sharp-witted but uncompromising debater-argue too forcefully against Palin, his female challenger could benefit. Biden could thereby be somewhat neutralized in the upcoming debates. Furthermore, the Obama camp will have to be careful to temper any criticism of Palin's inexperience, given their candidate's own weakness in that area.
The support for Palin from the Republican base would logically put her at odds with the Clinton supporters that Obama continues to have problems wooing. But logic need not prevail in the world of politics. And since Palin helps to bolster McCain's reputation for political defiance, Clinton's supporters just may be swayed by this appealing campaign narrative. And in turning to Palin, McCain is indeed reaching beyond the old-boy network.
McCain demonstrated in June that he would take pains to differentiate himself from President Bush and would be courting the disaffected Hillaryphiles: "You will hear from my opponent's campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release that I'm running for President Bush's third term," said McCain. "You will hear every policy of the president described as the Bush-McCain policy. Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false."
Since then, McCain has consistently sought to differentiate himself from Bush. And McCain has indeed confronted his own party in a number of key areas: from legislation on the environment, to stem-cell research, to a constitutional amendment on marriage, to the use of torture. But while those issues are important, the most fundamental decisions facing the next president will be in the foreign-policy arena, especially since neither candidate is making radical proposals on economic or constitutional issues.
And if McCain is to be taken at his word on foreign policy, he does appear to harbor some extremist ideas. He has said that he believes America will be forced to enter other wars. But a readiness to use military force may not be the only problem under a President McCain. A lack of consistency and the promotion of contradictory policies make the senator's worldview seem incoherent. Furthermore, his overly confrontational stance towards Moscow could complicate vital dialogue with the government there and undermine U.S. interests.
Selecting Palin could indeed serve to soften McCain's image and reinforce his campaign narrative. But a close examination of Palin's policies and experience could come to alienate Clinton's dogged supporters and raise doubts about her ability to lead, should the septuagenarian McCain be incapacitated for any reason. Furthermore, while McCain has earned his reputation for a moderate and a maverick in some areas, he remains a fringe thinker on foreign policy.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.