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September 12, 2008

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If I had to bet, it would be on the stupid people. "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of Americans" or something like that. It got us 8 years of Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfield, Wolfowitz, ad nausium. Oh wait, I did lose money on THAT bet as my IRAs will attest.

Well, just ask yourself if John McCain, acting personally and independently, would have selected Sarah Palin as his ideal running mate. It seems to me that since the answer is an obvious "no", we have to assume that McCain is acting under compulsion from his campaign advisers. The question then becomes, what compulsion?

I think a reasonable hypothesis can be inferred by examining where the McCain campaign was before the Palin for VP announcement, what his campaign was lacking, how Republican strategists think (as judged by their actions in recent presidential elections), and what the McCain ticket gains from Palin -- or at least, what the perceived gains might be according to his campaign advisory team. Then we can examine the (surprisingly subtle) question of how good McCain's judgment was in acceding to this advice.

(1) What the McCain campaign was: (a) Demographically: old, White and male. Not the ticket to attract young voters, women voters, or minority voters. (b) Politically: conservative, but not enough to enthuse the right-wing types who make up the activist core of the Republican Party (a large portion of which consist of the Religious Right); yet simultaneously, conservative enough by Republican standards to convince others that a vote for McCain was essentially a vote for the continuation of Bush Administration policies.

(2) What the McCain campaign was lacking: (a) Something to appeal to young, female, and minority voters; (b) Something to appeal to the activist core of the Republican Party.

(3) How do Republican strategists think and what did they hope to gain? We know that in the Bush campaign, great store was set in appealing to the Religious Right as a politically active Party core whose enthusiastic participation, if obtained, could energize campaign activities in practical ways along propaganda, organizing, and campaign finance fronts. We also know that in choosing Palin, McCain has killed two birds with one stone. By injecting youth, beauty, and plucky femininity into his campaign, he now gains some appeal, however superficial, among younger voters (male and female) and women voters (including, laughably, some of the feminist contingent). The choice of Palin as VP did not, of course, broaden McCain's appeal to minority voters, but running against Obama he would always be playing second-fiddle in that game anyway, in addition to the risk of alienating closet racists among his own potential voters. On the basis of a strictly cynical cost-benefit analysis, he may have been shrewd in concentrating on wooing the remaining demographic and political target groups.

(4) How good was McCain's judgment in acceding to this advice? Well, there was a general media concensus before Palin was announced, that McCain was running on borrowed time and that the campaign was all but decided. Now the media buzz, though including some rancorous discord, seems to regard the campaign as competitive again. The polling data, for whatever it's worth, seems to reflect this.

Mr. Talton questions McCain's judgment, and as a thinking person I can certainly see his point. But things become clearer if we divide the electorate (pre-Palin) into some broad categories: (a) informed, intelligent voters who had already decided whom to vote for; (b) intelligent, informed, but undecided voters; (c) lackadaisical or undecided voters whose degree of political engagement and understanding of the issues is low; (d) special-interest voters such as the Religious Right, as well as a subset of broadly "feminist" voters for whom the sex of the candidate is disproportionately important.

In deciding on a running-mate, it's clear that McCain's choice would not affect category (a), and category (b) is quite small. That leaves categories (c) and (d), which are by no means mutually exclusive and overlap in certain respects. These were the groups from which McCain might have hoped to gain votes through a savvy VP pick. Voters from category (c) were unlikely to find a conservative policy-wonk appealing, but might respond to superficial, image driven considerations -- youth, beauty, sex appeal, personality, and charisma; all qualities lacking in John McCain himself, incidentally, but possessed by his opponent Obama. The biases of the remaining category, (d), require no elaboration.

So, by and large, McCain could not hope to appeal to persons of judgment in making his VP pick. Therefore, he had to appeal on other bases. Therefore, I would have to argue that McCain, having nothing to lose, demonstrated sound judgment in picking Palin -- that is, sound judgement with respect to the narrow question of electability.

I agree, therefore, with Mr. Talton that Palin cannot be ignored. If she is the new strength of the McCain ticket, she is also its new vulnerability. That vulnerability has to be attacked until she becomes a liability, at which time the McCain ticket, faced with two liabilities, will sink under the weight of its own deficits.

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