Many pundits have labeled John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot as an off-message roll of the dice. In fact, it was probably the most calculated move he’s made.
McCain has a big problem: How does a diehard conservative who’s championed every failed policy of the last eight years (tax cuts for the rich, the war in Iraq, the power of Big Oil) win the presidency against an inspiring proponent of change? He can’t win by relying solely on the conservative base, and yet he can’t win without them. He has to keep his mantel as a maverick while assuring the Big Boys he has no intention of bucking them.
His only chance of victory is to appeal to women, especially Hillary supporters, to white working class voters and to independents without alienating conservative extremists.
Former Hewlett Packard CEO and McCain finance chair Carly Fiorina might have sparked some women, but she’d antagonize the conservatives with her support for abortion rights and for requiring policies that include Viagra to cover birth control. The evangelicals would have had a similar reaction to Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, both of whom are pro-choice. Mitt Romney appealed to the base but would have been a finger in the eye to women and white workers – another four houses to account for.
Presto! Sarah Palin, a woman who uses the language of feminism while promoting a staunch conservative agenda: pro-gun, pro-creationism, anti-gay rights, anti-abortion even in the case of rape and incest. A woman who introduces her husband as a proud member of the steelworkers union while working to open Alaska to Big Oil. A politician who claims to be an environmentalist while denying that global warming is “man-made.”
In the eyes of John McCain, Palin brings another big plus. The press has bought into the Republican talking points and cloaked her, too, in the maverick mode. Like McCain, she stood her ground on certain reform issues. But on all the big questions of the day, both Palin and McCain walk lock step with George W. Bush and against the interests of women and working people in general.
John McCain is trying to pass off Gov. Palin as a career mom who knows the difficulties of balancing job and family – hoping women won’t notice the ticket’s opposition to every measure that would ease those difficulties, from expanding family leave to paid sick days to equal pay.
The real question isn’t why McCain chose Palin, but why the media continues to give them both cover, pasting on the “maverick” and “moderate” labels as if listing these terms were equivalent to listing party affiliation and state.
Recently I conducted an informal poll among my friends, all smart, politically aware people who keep up with the news. A dozen of the fifteen people I asked had never seen the clip of a befuddled Sen. McCain stroking his chin when a reporter asked if he’d voted against a proposal to require insurance companies that cover Viagra to cover contraceptive products. "I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer because I don't recall the vote,” McCain replied. “I don't usually duck an issue, but I'll try to get back to you."
Had that clip – or any of numerous examples of McCain’s other extremist positions and slip-ups – been played more than 600 times in four days, as the Dean scream was, today’s polls would be very different.
McCain is counting on women to be cheap and superficial about his selection. Even more, he’s counting on a docile media to be his ally as he tries to pass off Gov. Palin as a sister and champion.
It’s high time for the public to meet the real John McCain.