Northern Underexposure

After accepting the GOP nomination in St. Paul, Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, tour around the country.
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Monday, September 1, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- By all rights, there should be a revolt at this week's (now-delayed) Republican convention against John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate -- for the same reasons so many Republicans opposed President Bush's selection of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.

Palin is, if anything, less qualified for the vice presidency (and the presidency) than Miers was for the court. But there is one big difference: Palin passes all the right-wing litmus tests, which means she is unlikely to suffer Miers's fate.

It's amusing to watch Republicans play gender politics. At the time Bush chose Miers, he was under pressure to pick a woman to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But most of the plausible female jurists were either too moderate to satisfy conservatives or so right wing that they faced serious confirmation problems.

So Bush picked his close White House aide, hoping that his own standing with the right would push her through. Conservatives would have none of it. They assailed Miers's lack of judicial grounding. And they certainly had a case. But what really bothered them was that they had no idea how she would vote on the court. Fearing she was a closet moderate, they blocked her.

McCain, it appears, also wanted a woman, and so he went with the young Alaskan governor with strongly conservative views. How do Palin and Miers compare?

Miers, at least, had been a lawyer for 35 years, the head of the state bar in Texas and White House counsel. Palin's experience comes down to a couple of years as governor and six years as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town with fewer than 10,000 residents.

Where Miers definitely tops Palin is on the question of whether her patron can vouch for her. Bush knew Miers well, worked with her closely, trusted her deeply. You can question Bush's judgment in pushing her for the court -- for the record, at the time I called the choice "too clever" and thus "dangerous" -- but at least he had good reason to believe in the person he was asking others to count on.

McCain, as far as anyone can tell, met Palin only once before considering her for vice president, and once more before settling on her, which is to say he barely knows her. For the purpose of courting disaffected Hillary Clinton voters and satisfying the social conservatives, McCain is willing to place someone he knows mostly from press clippings and, okay, what his staff insists was thorough vetting, in the direct line of succession to the presidency. There is a breathtaking recklessness about this choice.

There are many who say that in choosing Palin, McCain has taken the issue of experience off the table. I disagree. Now, the balance on experience shifts toward the Democrats, and it's not just for the obvious reason that Joe Biden is manifestly more qualified than Palin.

Conservatives have complained that we barely know Obama. This is nonsense. Obama has been put through the journalistic wringer since he entered the public spotlight four years ago. We have been given fewer than 70 days to get to know Palin.

In particular, we know Obama's foreign policy views in great detail. About Palin's opinions on foreign policy, we know absolutely nothing. According to a 1999 Associated Press report, she sported a Pat Buchanan button when Buchanan visited Wasilla during his campaign for the 2000 Republican nomination. Does this mean she shares Buchanan's isolationist foreign policy views? Who can say? There is no record.

That only a handful of conservatives have so far expressed doubts about Palin demonstrates that ideology is what drove them during the Miers fight, and drives them still. Miers's lack of experience was, for many conservatives, a convenient rationale for opposing someone they worried might become another David Souter. Palin's lack of experience is irrelevant because she is right -- actually, quite far right -- on the conservatives' issues.

This week's convention will be overshadowed not only by a hurricane but also by McCain's choice of Palin. The Republicans once hoped to use their gathering to persuade Americans not to trust Obama. Now, as the speakers here make their case, the media will rightly be doing their job, trying to figure out who Palin is. Palin, not Obama, will be the issue, in a way that Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or some other well-known figure would not have been.

But that's a matter of politics. There is also the question of principle. In picking Biden as his running mate, Obama made a prudent choice. It is McCain who is asking us to roll the dice. You'd think that people who call themselves conservative would have a problem with that.

Read more from E.J. Dionne at's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.

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