A Heartbeat Away From Cynicism

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at Friday's rally announcing her candidacy.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at Friday's rally announcing her candidacy. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Ruth Marcus
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Did anybody watching John McCain introduce Sarah Palin as his running mate on Friday doubt that he would have preferred to be standing there with Joe Lieberman? When he and Palin hugged on stage, it had the air of the new daughter-in-law joining the family.

The spin on McCain's choice of the Alaska governor is that it reinforces his maverick credentials. I see it the opposite way: It undermines them. McCain looks like any other calculating politician, willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The maverick argument is that Palin is an outsider -- the only one of four on the November ballot. "She's not from these parts and she's not from Washington," McCain said in Dayton, Ohio. Palin complements McCain's reformer credentials, having spoken out against corruption and earmarks in a state that has an oversize share of both. She is a young, fresh and, yes, female face. "A running mate who can best help me shake up Washington," McCain said.

But I can't believe that McCain truly thinks Palin is the best choice to be a heartbeat away -- especially in a White House that would be occupied by the oldest man ever to be elected to a first term in the office.

McCain runs the risk that Palin will turn out to be Dan Quayle with an up-do -- except with less experience. By the time he was selected as George H.W. Bush's running mate, Quayle had served in the House and Senate for a dozen years. Palin has been governor for less than two.

I write this as someone who has qualms about Barack Obama's inexperience and who advised him, rather unwisely as it turned out, to hold off running in 2008 in order to gain more seasoning. I found his choice of Joe Biden reassuring; Obama got credit, in my view, for recognizing his weak points and moving to buttress them.

I write, too, as someone who respects McCain and who resisted piling on when he made accommodations in his pursuit of the Republican nomination. If he needed to mend fences with the religious right, fine. If he needed to reverse himself on the Bush tax cuts, that was far more disturbing, but as a matter of political calculation, it was understandable.

As Don Rumsfeld might say, you run for the presidency in the party that you have.

But McCain has always been clearheaded about the central reason for his candidacy: He wants to lead the country in the fight against global Islamic extremism. If "the threat of radical Islamic terrorism" is, as McCain says, "the transcendent challenge of our time," how would Vice President Palin help him address it?

About the woman thing: "We should all be proud," Hillary Clinton said in a statement, of this "historic nomination."

Sorry, but count me out. I found Palin's selection, and her calculated shout-out to unhappy Clinton supporters, insulting. In that sense, Palin's selection seems less like Quayle and more like Clarence Thomas for the Supeme Court. "She's exactly who I need," McCain said -- but the notion that Palin, like Thomas, is the best-qualified for the job is ludicrous.

Clinton's candidacy was attractive to me because it was not premised on gender. "I am very proud to be making history running as a woman for president of the United States, but I'm not running because I am a woman," she said. "I'm running because I think I am the most qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running in January 2009."

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