Friday morning we all left Denver, the taxis taking press, pundits and roving activists straight from airless whiskey bars to Denver’s deathstar airport, to be decanted by near bankrupt airlines to the freaky city of St Paul — Minneapolis’s deformed, evil twin, chock full of bland carparks and dingy warehouses. The Obamathon was still throbbing in everyone’s memory, even through the free malt at the Rhode Island party, or somesuch. McCain’s VP choice was lingering. What would he do? Romney, Pawlenty, Lieberman, the late Strom Thurmond? He was going to have to slam that card down, really gazump it.

Gazump it he did, with a morning announcement of his Vice-Presidential choice — Sarah Palin, a forty-four year old Governor of Alaska, who until twenty months ago had been the mayor of a 9,000 strong suburb of Anchorage. The announcement spread like wildfire — at Denver airport, every departure lounge was full of journalists following the story on their blackberries, breathlessly relaying the same Wikipedia details to editors on the coast. Restaurant and retail staff stopped to watch CNN on the airport screens. The universal description of the choice was “exciting”.

“Hillary Clinton put eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,” Governor Palin told the assembled press.

“And the women of America aren’t done yet!”

By some reports, senior Republican officials had another word for it, which was “terrifying”. The choice of Palin is an indication of the nervousness that McCain’s inner-circle are feeling about the way the polls are going, and suggests that they believe that victory will only be achieved by audacious moves. Though  McCain has made up ground in the past few weeks due to the Democrats lacklustre campaign, his strategists appear to share the belief that the polls are not reflecting the amount of voters Obama will be able to draw in from outside the political process — people never polled, because they have never been “tagged” as “likely voters”, nor even registered (a number of states allow for same day registration of voters).

If the McCain camp had been convinced that they were steadily pulling ahead of Obama, they would have chosen someone to emphasise Obama’s inexperience. The choice of Palin is an attempt to punch through, to change the terms of the contest. It got early results, with the Obama team releasing an initial statement that damned Palin as a former small-town mayor and a “cynical” choice, an awkward response which suggested they had been genuinely wrong-footed.

Palin is a practically lifelong Alaskan, who worked briefly as a regional TV sports reporter, before becoming a local councillor in the early 90s, and then mayor, of Wazilla, an Anchorage suburb. She rapidly gained a reputation for toughness against an entrenched political machine, sacking her own police chief, and later resigning her appointment to the Alaska Oil and Gas commission, and filing corruption complaints against fellow Republicans members of that body. Off the back of that win, she won the Republican primary for the governor candidacy, and then the governorship itself in 2006.

She gained a great deal of support for highly visible stunts like selling the former Governor’s recently purchased Lear jet on Ebay — and the undying enmity of a section of the Republican establishment, a feeling amplified when Alaska patriarch Senator Ted Stevens was indicted on charges of corruption two months ago. The drive, the efficiency, the independent streak are one part of her attractiveness as a candidate — the other is her solid social conservatism.

A pentecostal Christian, she is hardline anti-abortion, same-sex marriage, and supports “teaching the controversy” as regards creationism. Personal and political are intertwined — she became a poster-mom for the anti-abortion movement when she had her fifth child, despite knowing that it had Down’s syndrome, a move being portrayed less as a personal choice than as a heroic act of cultural resistance. In that sense she’s a safe choice — this latter aspect goes a long way to satisfying the fealty demanded by the Christian Right faction of the party.

Finally, there is the hope that there will be a sufficient tranche of disgruntled Hillary supporters who are either unconcerned by or unaware of Palin’s social views, and will vote for her out of a sense of historic destiny thwarted.

Yet all this triangulation would suggest that the McCain camp has been too clever by half, for the fact cannot be ignored that compared to Sarah Palin, the “inexperienced” Barack Obama looks like Talleyrand in his eighth decade. It’s not simply that Obama has a couple of years in the Senate, on some committees, and has thus been focussed on international, rather than local matters, it’s also that Barack Obama gives every appearance of having had a sense of his own destiny from a pretty early part of his adulthood. That, plus study in the humanities, and tenure as a professor of constitutional law have given him a gravitas and focus, a sense that he has been measuring up to the job for some time. To a degree this is acknowledged in the Republicans’ attacks on him — not that he is obviously unsuitable to lead, but that he only gives the appearance of being suitable.

Palin by contrast gives no appearance of having focused on national or international issues at all. She’s a familiar figure in provincial politics — someone drawn into politics by an irritation with an obvious idiocy (sales tax, in her case), who suddenly finds that they have what is essential to every mainstream politician — highly integrated skills. Thus she has panache (that lear jet), but also application, and energy, guts (that police chief) but also diplomacy and conciliation.

In places like Alaska, where corruption has driven more capable people out of politics, or the state altogether, such people rise quickly. Yet the other side of their character is that their focus has practically all been on the parochial. Thus Palin had, until last year, never been out of the country, and barely out of Alaska. Unsurprisingly she has almost no foreign policy opinions on record. And a month ago, she not only pooh-poohed the suggestion that she was a VP candidate, but also questioned whether the job was worth it: “I would like to know, what does a vice-president do… I’m someone who likes to be active and work hard.”

Her startling resemblance to Elaine Benis from Seinfeld does not help the possibility that a perception of her as dizty may take over (other comparisons have included Tina Fey, of Saturday Night Live, and the repressed but s-xy librarians relieved of their hairpins and inhibitions in European soft-core p-rn — it is the fate of women in politics that they can’t be, but must eternally be like.)

The great fear for Republican hacks — and for some more sceptical observers from the right, such as Charles Krauthammer — is that Joe Biden, a walking encyclopedia of domestic and foreign policy, will take her apart in the vice-presidential debates, and it will be suddenly clear that a Republican victory will ensure that the White House is one cold-snap away from being run by someone who has spent a career thinking about snowmobiles and regional airstrips.

The converse may be true — she may make Biden look like a doddering dinosaur and, with due tutelage, appear smart and fast. But what is interesting is the degree to which this choice has attenuated the notion of political calculus to the point where leadership and statesmanship play no actual part in the mix.

After all, the two tickets are scarcely symmetrical. No-one selected Barack Obama. Part of his appeal is that he put together a new sort of political career from the standard chaos of a postmodern life — tens of millions of younger people recognise in him the same bewildering wander through college, a couple of different dead-ends, a bit of going-back-to-the-roots, etc. All they’ve lacked is his adamantine, albeit well-concealed, will. Once there, he solidified the ticket with an elder mentor, less Kennedy than Obi-Won Kenobi.

But Star Wars is effectively canonical American literature, Seinfeld its seamy ironic underbelly. Is the world ready for a Peterman-Elaine presidency? (“Sarah, I learnt something very important when I was downriver in a jungle prison for five and a half years… “Mr McCain please I have to go and help my friend move eight thousand muffin bottoms to a cabin owned by his fiance…”).

Has the McCain campaign had its urban sombrero moment?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey