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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Michael Sherry | Political Animal

Almost two months ago, when John McCain plucked Sarah Palin from obscurity to be his running mate, I wrote that the choice had sent the 2008 presidential race into "uncharted territory." Palin was such an unknown figure to most of the national political media that nobody was quite sure how the pick would play out or what effect she'd have on her party or the country at large. And when I say nobody, I mean nobody -- even McCain had only met her twice, briefly, before deciding "McCain-Palin '08" had a nice ring to it.

So in the two months since she's been chosen, what have we learned about the Thrilla from Wasilla? The picture isn't entirely clear yet, but we're starting to get a pretty good handle on the political implications of the Palin pick -- both in terms of this upcoming election and down the road in 2012.

First of all, she hasn't proven to be the electoral silver bullet her most ardent backers have made her out to be. It now appears clear that the spike in McCain's poll numbers following his pick was a combination of the standard VP announcement bounce and the party convention bounce -- the fact that McCain announced her the day before his convention simply meant that the two bounces coincided and magnified one another. The VP and convention bounces faded, like they always do.

Secondly, Palin's cringe-worthy performances in her first two high-stakes interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric did lasting damage to her ability to be effective with moderate and independent voters. Tina Fey's widely viewed impersonation of Palin as a ditzy Jesus freak will undoubtedly be many voters' final impression of the Alaska governor. Seeking to capitalize on the widespread perception that Palin simply isn't up to the job of filling in as president, the Obama campaign released a devastating new ad yesterday. It features year-old quotes from McCain admitting to not understanding the economy as well as he should, and then saying he might need to rely on his vice president for economic advice. The screen then cuts to one of Sarah Palin's famous wink-and-grins from the VP debate. No words are added, nor are they needed. The implication is clear.

This gets to the heart of the curious war over her reputation that will be waged if the Republicans lose next week. Palin is tremendously popular with the Republican base, and most of the party will be inclined to support her and blame McCain, who they never much liked anyway, for the loss. A smaller contingent of Republicans view her as a disaster for their party, and they despair at the love for her among the base.

The Palin-lovers tend to be the party's grassroots activists and evangelicals in rural areas of the country, while the Palin-o-phobes tend to be the Republican "elite": figures like New York Times columnist David Brooks, George H.W. Bush, Reagan speechwriters David Frum and Peggy Noonan and conservative columnist George Will. These Republicans, the Palin fans sniff, are East Coast, big-city "professional" conservatives who aren't in tune with the real base of the party and its love for Sarah Palin. One of the defining battles within the Republican Party, especially if McCain-Palin goes down to defeat next week, will pit the evangelicals and small-town party activists against the party's business and professional wing in New York and D.C. The former have manpower and energy, while the latter have the money, influence and intellectual firepower behind the Republican Party. It will be a fascinating fight.

One last thing -- don't think you've seen the last of Sarah Palin if she loses next week. She knows she has allies in the party. She's tremendously ambitious, and her political history in Alaska is one of using senior figures to advance her own agenda and then discarding them once they cease to be useful to her. McCain might simply be the latest name to be added to that list.

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Michael Sherry is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Michael.Sherry@tufts.edu.


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