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September 01, 2008, Monday

McCain’s gamble

John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old Alaska governor, appears to be an act of desperation. With this unexpected pick, McCain is clumsily trying to show that his presidency will not be a third term of the Bush administration. If Barack Obama's main message is "change," now McCain can also claim he represents change. As the governor of far-flung Alaska who rose to prominence by attacking corruption in state government, Palin will be cast as a Washington outsider who will reinforce McCain's maverick reputation. But with his choice of Palin as running mate, McCain is rolling the dice toward the unknown.

In many ways the choice of Palin is irresponsible. Her executive experience consists of less than two years as governor of a sparsely populated state, plus six years as mayor of a city with 9,000 inhabitants. Except for a semblance of knowledge of the energy and natural resource issues (mainly of Alaska), Palin has barely been heard from in the broader national debates over economic policy. She has absolutely no record on foreign policy and national security. She has no experience and no proven track record of good judgment.

The choice of Palin is also a blatantly transparent attempt to woo female voters, especially those in the Democratic camp who have been disappointed by Obama's victory. Now McCain can say he is giving voters a chance to make history by electing the first woman to be vice president. He is also hoping Palin will appeal to those working-class Democrats, especially women, who voted for Senator Hillary Clinton in the primary.

But Clinton stalwarts should take offense at this choice. Apparently McCain decided that, for women disappointed with not being able to vote for Clinton, any woman would do. "Hillary Clinton left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," Palin said on Friday, referring to the number of votes cast for Clinton in the primaries. "It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all." Since when do issues no longer matter? Are Clinton's female supporters blind or stupid enough to vote for an anti-abortion, pro-gun die-hard conservative just because she happens to be a woman? Clinton's female supporters will probably be insulted by that assumption. In fact, if there were some possibility that some of Clinton's most ardent Democratic supporters, angered by her defeat, might vote for McCain, that possibility should now no longer exist.

Yet, there is a more important issue that is highly disturbing about McCain's gamble. Is Palin fit to assume the presidency should anything happen to McCain? This was the most important question McCain should have asked, not whether she could help him win the presidency. This is the main issue for any presidential nominee, and it is especially crucial that McCain -- who just turned 72 -- get this choice right. If McCain is elected, he will be the oldest man ever to serve a first term in the White House with probably the most inexperienced vice president in the history of the United States. No wonder Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." If she becomes president, this former beauty queen who has never been outside the United States will be the one dealing with the likes of Russia's [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin, China's President Hu Jintao and the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Palin choice helped the McCain campaign only because it grabbed the news cycle away from Obama and gave the media just a few hours to ponder about Obama's historic speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. But at the end of the day, even at this tactical level, the choice makes little sense. After all, the Republican candidates' main criticism of Obama is his lack of experience. By selecting Palin, McCain has therefore negated his most powerful argument with one stroke. So much for tactical genius.

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