Sarah Palin certainly had a better debut than Dan Quayle 20 years ago. I remember his speech at an outdoor rally in New Orleans at the start of the GOP convention right after being selected by George H.W. Bush. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and Quayle immediately displayed the eagerness – and gravitas – of a puppy. Gov. Palin, by contrast, struck me today as getting the tone just about right – neither too deferential nor assertive, enthusiastic yet serious and under control. She’s starting the longest 10 weeks of her public life, however, so Republicans need to hope that she’s either an incredibly quick study, or that she’s an exceptional talent who has been performing off-Broadway.
I am not happy to see the McCain campaign unilaterally defuse its best weapon against Obama: the argument about his callowness and lack of preparation. The claim that he is not ready for the Oval Office will resonate much less coming from a campaign that insists she is.
It’s tempting, then, to call the Palin selection an unforced error by the McCain campaign. That judgment, however, requires demonstrating persuasively that there was an alternative vice presidential selection that would have been decidedly better. The Palin nomination suggests that McCain and his closest advisors think that the unfavorable 2008 political terrain guarantees that, despite their successes over the summer, this is going to be a hard presidential election for the Republican to win. McCain is a boxing fan, so he knows about underdogs who have “a puncher’s chance” if they show enough aggression. If the McCain campaign believed that the November election was a 50/50 proposition a “first, do no harm” vice-presidential nominee like Tim Pawlenty would have had more appeal. If the presidential futures trading markets are right, however – they make Obama a 3-to-2 favorite - inoffensiveness is insufficient. In any competition, you reduce risks to protect a lead, and take chances to erase a deficit.
On the other hand, the enthusiasm for Palin on the conservative blogosphere today suggests, above all, huge relief that McCain found a way to make a bold, unexpected VP pick without selecting a pro-choice candidate, such as Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a tactic suggesting McCain wants to win a base-mobilization election against Obama. That approach worked, barely, for the Republicans in 2004, when the circumstances were decidedly more favorable than today’s. Perhaps the calculation is that McCain has enough residual appeal to Independent voters and weak Democrats as “the original maverick” that he can “drill deep” with Republicans while simultaneously doing well – or at least well enough – with non-Republican voters who are up for grabs. That sounds hard and risky, like landing a fighter plane on an aircraft carrier during stormy weather – the sort of thing McCain used to do a lot of.