Palin and the politics of symbolism

This is an expanded and revised version of a Sunday print column that ran this morning. I'll be off duty tomorrow, for the holiday. Back on Tuesday.

At least in symbolic terms, John McCain has already taken the first big step toward putting his imprint on the Republican party.

By picking a young female governor and mother of five as his running mate, he is signaling his intention to shake things up and scrap the traditional GOP paradigm. Indeed, that is his prime task this week at his national convention, as he seeks to position his candidacy for the autumn presidential race. He rightly decided that he needed to effectuate a marketing overhaul, if only because the Bush-Cheney team has damaged the party “brand” so badly.

The choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin provides a window into McCain’s election strategy. Mindful that fewer votes describe themselves as Republicans than at any other time in recent years – Gallup reports that the self-identified Democrats now hold a 14-point advantage, whereas the parties were at parity only four years ago – McCain knows he’s toast unless he can swing the independents. And he can’t do that unless he reclaims his former image as a “maverick” reformer.

Palin is designed to be Exhibit A. She defeated an ethics-challenged incumbent governor two years ago; she canceled the infamous “bridge to nowhere” pork project that had come to symbolize Republican entitlement in Washington. She reinforces McCain’s longstanding message about wasteful government spending. And by dint of her gender, she helps McCain make the case that Democrats this year do not have the monopoly on “change,” that the Republicans are arguably just as keen to practice diversity in the 21st century.

But McCain is also well aware that he can’t win without also galvanizing the conservative base. He knows that any moves to the center must be counterbalanced by further fealty to the Republican right. He may be the party nominee, but he is stil viewed with suspicion by many of the conservatives who still dominate the party.

The fact is, McCain prevailed in the primaries only because conservatives never coalesced around an opponent. McCain nailed down the nomination in three contests (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida) without ever winning a majority or plurality of self-described conservatives. He was basically saved by moderates, independents and, in Florida, Latinos.

This means that the conservatives who still control the GOP apparatus are not beholden to the GOP nominee. This sets up an interesting tension. While McCain this week will undoubtedly seek to signal a new era for the party, the conservatives are busy writing an old-style party platform that contradicts McCain’s stated concerns about global warming, and undercuts his belief in the need for path-to-citizenship immigration reform.

Hence Palin’s other important role, as an ambassador to the base. As governor she has signed tax cuts and shaped up the state budget (thereby reassuring the economic conservatives); she is a lifelong NRA member and an abortion opponent who decided to give birth to her fifth child after she received a diagnosis of Down Syndrome (thereby reassuring the social conservatives).

The Palin choice also apparently reflects McCain’s belief that the GOP will benefit from a fresh face, that humanizing the party can help repair the wreckage of the past eight years. She’ll be a great story at the convention – former basketball player, former beauty queen – if only because the press is drawn to novelty, and she can work the women voters in swing states by sharing a personal saga – the ultimate working mom - that no previous Republican running mate could ever muster. McCain wanted to create some buzz, and he has succeeded.

However, millions of these women are likely to feel insulted by the assumption  that they'll flock to Palin merely because they all share the same gender. No doubt McCain would like to think that he can make inroads with the disgruntled Hillary Clinton sisterhood merely by putting Palin on display. But I hardly think that those women will march behind the GOP banner once they learn (if they haven’t already) that Palin is an anti-abortion extremist, that she thinks global warming is a hoax, that she wants creationism taught in the public schools, and that basically she stands for everything that Hillary Clinton has opposed for the past 35 years.

Then we have the inexperience factor. McCain, who is by instinct a gambler, has calculated that Palin’s zero exposure to national security issues will not hinder his campaign.

At the convention this week, he’ll surely trumpet his foreign policy seasoning (while omitting his manifest failure to ask any hard questions during the runup to war in Iraq), and undoubtedly his surrogates will retell the familiar POW story that has long mesmerized so many voters. It’s a linchpin of his appeal. McCain figures that his character assets are powerful enough to trump any concerns about Palin’s readiness to command in an emergency; after all, voters generally don’t focus on the running mates when they cast their ballots.

But still. On the readiness issue, Palin’s candidacy can arguably be viewed as a cosmic joke on the electorate.

It’s McCain who always contends that the defeat of terrorism is the seminal issue of our time. Yet now, in his first important act as a presidential nominee, he has decided that he wants to position, one heartbeat away, a politician with two years of statewide office and nary a second spent in Washington; a person who until two years ago was the mayor of a small town (population 7000); a governor whose security experience consists of commanding the Alaska National Guard. (Back in 1992, Republicans ridiculed Bill Clinton’s lack of experience by pointing out that he had merely commanded the Arkansas National Guard.)

And there’s also a gem from the archives. Twenty months ago, when Palin was asked whether she supported President Bush’s plan for a troop surge in Iraq, she gave us a glimpse of her foreign policy knowledge. Ready for this? Here we go:

“I haven’t really focused much on the war in Iraq.”

And some voters may wonder whether Palin has sufficient awareness of what it would be like to reside a heartbeat away. Here’s what she asked Larry Kudlow, during an interview earlier this summer on CNBC:

“What is it that the VP does every day?”

Well, gee. Even an amateur student of Washington politics knows that many VPs have actually been quite busy since Walter Mondale modernized the job in 1977. Al Gore was quite active as well, although Palin doesn't seem to have a clue about that, either. No doubt Dick Cheney could give Palin a tutorial on his own busy days, without even mentioning how he shot a lawyer in the face.

The Palin choice is not as egregious as Bush’s decision to install Michael Brown at the helm of FEMA (Brownie had previously run the International Arabian Horse Association), but some swing voters may be forgiven for wondering whether McCain is perpetuating the Bush tradition of filling key posts with ill-qualified people…and, in the present case, somebody whom McCain barely knows at all.

Republicans are planning this week to talk at length about Barack Obama’s alleged lack of preparedness to command – and that’s fair game, a legitimate issue for many voters – yet McCain has now risked taking that theme off the table. Particularly because voters might well compare her readiness credentials to those of Joe Biden, who presumably will trump her on foreign policy substance, perhaps provide her with some much-needed "focus" on the war in Iraq, and win their debate with ease - provided he is not perceived as having bullied her.

And this readiness factor matters, if only because of McCain’s age. It’s fair to assume that the Republicans, especially during convention week, would prefer that scant attention be paid to McCain’s age. Palin’s presence guarantees the opposite. Mindful of McCain’s age (he turned 72 on Friday) voters watching Palin’s acceptance speech on Wednesday night will have to ask themselves whether they can envision this “working mom” tending to her brood while taking the fight to al Qaeda.

Perhaps Obama and Biden can ultimately frame the Palin choice as merely cosmetic, an inept attempt by McCain to hide his long fealty to the old GOP and the policies of Bush. For now, however, McCain will cite Palin as proof that he intends to point the party forward, into the future, with a whole new “brand.” Maybe voters won’t buy the symbolism, but it may be the only way he can win.