Balanced tickets

Jay Cost has an interesting take on McCain's choice of Sarah Palin for VP. I mostly agree  with him (except that I think he is wrong to say, in passing, that Obama should have chosen Clinton over Biden).

I think many people are surprised to discover that McCain intends to carry a positive message into the fall. Many of us had assumed that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama, with McCain serving as an inoffensive backup for those too unsure of the junior senator from Illinois. Just a few weeks ago, I used this logic to argue that McCain should select Mitt Romney, as he was the best among the viable picks to go after Obama.

John McCain clearly does not share this view of the race. By picking Palin, he is signaling that he intends to win this election not just by attacking Obama, but by offering an affirmative message of his own.

What is that message? It is that he represents change, too. It's not the "drastic" change that Obama represents, but rather "common sense reform" (scare quotes reflect what we will hear from McCain-Palin, not non-partisan reality). McCain is indicating that he, too, is a candidate whose election would alter the status quo - not as much as Obama's election would, but alter it nonetheless.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider the two tickets. The fresh but inexperienced candidate is at the top of the Democratic ticket; the experienced pol who, even after all these years, "calls it like he sees it" is at the bottom. With the GOP, it's reversed. These tickets are mirror images of one another. The message to voters from McCain? If you're unhappy with the status quo in Washington, but are worried that Obama-Biden would be too drastic a change, vote McCain-Palin.

So, the public gets a pretty sophisticated choice this year. It's not a choice between change versus more of the same. It's a choice between degrees of change. I like this. And while I have no idea how Palin will play, I like that McCain believes he has to offer something positive and new to win.

In my Monday column for the FT, I argue that the Palin pick, though an enormous risk,  may well have been a risk worth taking. I'll post the column after the jump.

So John McCain is no longer a maverick. Here is one Democratic talking point that will need some work, and it is by no means the only one. In naming Sarah Palin - the young and only recently elected governor of Alaska, a small-town mayor before that - as his Republican running mate in the US presidential race, Mr McCain has taken an extraordinary risk. It was certainly the act of an unorthodox politician. Was it, though, the act of a reckless and stupid one? I think not.

The instant reaction among Democrats was astonishment. Quickly that gave way to outrage. James Carville, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said he was "vexed, completely vexed" by the choice. Paul Begala, another friend of the Clintons, in almost his first sentence on the matter, sneeringly attributed Mrs Palin's poise to her time as a beauty queen. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House of Representatives' Democratic caucus, said: "On his 72nd birthday, this is the guy's judgment of who he wants one heartbeat from the presidency? Please." The prevailing attitude was a hair's breadth from laughter at the bimbo from a state that does not count.

Will these people never learn? Let me try to walk the experts, with their many years of experience, through this thing.

The McCain campaign staff could not have scripted a more helpful response. They are anything but embarrassed by a focus on Mrs Palin's inexperience, and the more spluttering, condescending and incredulous it is, the better. The reason is obvious: Democrats' amazement at the suggestion that Mrs Palin is fit to be vice-president has disturbing implications for Barack Obama's own fitness to be president. She, after all, has had two years running a state. He has had no years running anything. Also, if experience matters as much as the Democrats now say, you want it at the top of the ticket, do you not?

Yes, Mr Obama has some limited experience of Washington. But that in fact is an electoral liability. Congress is much less popular even than George W. Bush. You cannot believe that Mr Obama is a strong and worthy candidate, as I do, and regard lack of Washington experience as a disqualifying factor for the presidency, let alone for the vice-presidency. Ronald Reagan had none. Mr Clinton had none. It did not hold them back in electoral terms and it did not stop them being a great president and a good, if flawed, president respectively.

The point is simple: for this job, character trumps experience, especially Washington experience, every time. Voters know this even if the experts do not. The public will want to get a sense of whether they like and trust Mrs Palin, and at first blush there is a lot to like. A much higher bar is believing she could cope with the pressure and responsibility that could come her way. If they are satisfied, her being an outsider from an ordinary background, untainted by Washington, will be an advantage, not a drawback. Voters are right to take this view. No training or experience can prepare you for the presidency. On any given issue, the president is surrounded by specialists who know infinitely more about the subject than he does. The ability to weigh the quality of that advice, and then act on it, is what matters.

Mr McCain's gamble could fail, no question, and if it fails it wrecks his candidacy beyond repair. If Mrs Palin turns out to be anything less than excellent - let alone Dan Quayle in drag, as somebody put it - Mr McCain stands condemned for poor judgment. Hurricane Gustav permitting, Mrs Palin will need to impress at the Republicans' convention this week. A heck of a challenge looms beyond that: the television debate between Mrs Palin and Joe Biden, Mr Obama's running mate, on October 2 will be the most riveting such event in living memory, more compelling even than the planned presidential debates - and Mr Biden may make mincemeat of her.

How can it be, then, that the risk was worth taking? I think the McCain campaign had calculated - rightly, in my view - that it was on course to lose the election. National poll numbers that showed the race tightening flattered the Republican's prospects; the state-by-state picture was less encouraging. The electoral fundamentals that have predicted 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections (the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent) are hugely in Mr Obama's favour. Mr Obama is also likely to excel at getting out his vote, whereas Mr McCain is not much loved by the Republican base.

What does that Republican base think of Mrs Palin - a Christian, a social conservative, an opponent of abortion? "They are beyond ecstatic," said Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition.

If the Clintons had wrecked last week's Denver convention and split the Democratic party, things would have looked different and Mr McCain might have made a safer choice. They chose, however belatedly, to unite the party and then at the end of the week Mr Obama shone. All this harmed Mr McCain's prospects. If you think you are on track to lose, it is not crazy to gamble on redemption, so long as you think the bet has a big enough upside. This one does.

Like Monty Python's Knights Who Say Ni, it will take the Democrats a little while to stop complaining that Mr McCain stands for four more years of Mr Bush. McCain-Palin is about as far from Bush-Cheney as you could imagine. I look to Mr Obama for a more intelligent response before long. In this, as in many other ways, he seems wiser than the experts around him. He congratulated Mrs Palin on her nomination without condescension or so much as a trace of a moose joke. Once again, inexperience and good character pay.