What Sarah Palin means

She lets John McCain appease the Christian right while looking like a social reformer.

Published August 29, 2008 6:27PM (EDT)

John McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is either bold or desperate, or maybe both. The big risk to the selection was spotlighted by the odd symbolism of the day he chose her, his 72nd birthday, highlighting questions of age and mortality. Is this 44-year-old one-term governor with no foreign policy credentials really ready to be president if something were to happen to McCain? We don't know yet.

The contrast of age and gender means McCain and Palin didn't look like running mates standing together today in Dayton, but the McCain team is betting that's a good thing in a year when voters crave change. Palin is so unknown it's impossible to judge yet whether this was a smart pick for McCain. Certainly it's a great narrative: She's a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding, basketball-playing mother of five whose husband is a steelworker; you can see her talking kitchen table issues much more naturally than McCain or his wife, Cindy. McCain said as much today, noting that "she understands" the problems of rising gas and food prices. (McCain's underlying message: And I don't.) She lets the GOP continue to dream of making inroads among Hillary Clinton's female constituency.

But the pick was really intended to wow the Christian right. Palin is a staunch antiabortion Christian conservative; every story about her notes that she chose not to abort her fifth child, now 4 months old, even after she discovered he had Down syndrome. (The fact that the decision is newsworthy creates a weird implication that a Democratic woman would make a different decision.) The pick let McCain pander to the Christian right (who ruled out his choice of Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) while seeming like a social reformer.

Palin didn't talk about abortion or any divisive social issues in her short, sweet speech Friday morning. She lionized John McCain and made a strong pitch to women, praising the Democrats' first female vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro (another casualty of the rough Democratic primary), as well as the "determination and grace" of Hillary Clinton. Noting that her selection came "almost 88 years to the day that the women of America gained the right to vote," she pointed to the 18 million cracks Clinton voters put in the glass ceiling and promised "we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all with her election." That's not quite true, since Clinton was running for president and Palin's up for vice president, but it's a nice notion.

Can it possibly work? I don't think so, but we'll see what kind of a campaigner Palin turns out to be. I think choice is too central to the concerns of Democratic women to make Palin anything more than an attractive, interesting conservative politician, one they might admire, but never vote for. Still, it was clear from all the women's outreach in Denver that the GOP is serious about trying to capitalize on women's lingering unhappiness about the end of Clinton's campaign. I think the last two unifying, uplifting days of the convention reduced the number of women ripe for Palin's pitch, but we'll see. The biggest question about Palin, though, is her lack of experience, especially in any role that gave her foreign policy perspective. She'll have a lot of work to do before debating Joe Biden.

Still, I can't help being a little pleased at the social change the pick makes real. A night after watching the first African-American accept the Democratic nomination, we woke to find the first woman had been chosen to be the Republican vice-presidential nominee. The race just got a lot more interesting.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections