By John Cheney-Lippold
The McCain camp’s announcement Friday morning that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will be the Republican vice presidential candidate is nothing more than a performance in the politics of cynicism, a cynicism that may prove to be somewhat of a strategic miracle for the Republicans as they try to follow the Democrats’ much-publicized rock concert, or national convention, in Denver this week.
While it may not be the best aesthetic choice to put an attractive, young political upstart next to the septuagenarian John McCain, the juxtaposition of the two in terms of identity, experience and policy may work well as a unified presidential ticket, though of course only on a purely superficial level. Palin may be strongly cast as a “Republican Hillary” who can draw Clinton-supporting Democrats and independents either to McCain or away from the polls, come November.
As much as Republican analysts/apologists would love to allay the critiques that Palin’s nomination is driven by her “maverick” political past (more on that later), her candidacy is transparent. The choice of a white, motherly, middle-aged woman is obviously a demographic ploy to further disunite the Democratic Party immediately after Thursday’s conclusion of its convention.
The timing of the announcement in the wake of Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden instead of Clinton as a running mate and the inclusion of a woman on the Republican ticket with its own history-making possibilities just scream reactionary cynicism. Not that an election campaign is much more than a performance in poll dancing, but the use of gender in McCain’s choice for vice president is still disturbingly shallow.
On the point of experience, the Alaska governor has only two years as an elected official in high office. This inchoateness can be compared to Obama’s limited time on the political stage, a condition that affords both candidates truncated résumés absent of serious political gaffes but filled with enough political activity to label each a good Republican or Democrat.
Yet Palin’s inexperience is supplemented by McCain’s experience, in a move opposite, but much like, Obama’s choice of Biden. Of course that didn’t stop the Obama camp from coming out guns blazing in reacting to the choice of Palin. An Obama campaign spokesperson, striking yet another low blow against McCain’s age, noted that the Alaska governor’s “zero foreign policy experience [would be only] a heartbeat away from the presidency.”
Palin’s policy work and history as a “maverick”—however drained that word is in recent political discourse—are those of a line-toeing conservative who vehemently supports the war, loves guns, is anti-abortion and wants to kill polar bears. No, seriously. As governor she recently sued the federal government, claiming that the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which protects polar bears, is unjust because it prohibits Alaska from fully exploring oil and natural gas sites. She wants to be able to kill polar bears to drill for oil. How Republican is that?
Her support for big oil companies, destruction of polar bears aside, leads her to advocate strongly for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an idea that has for ages been disregarded as a reactionary and foolish Band-Aid on the larger problem of the country’s dependency on oil, foreign or domestic.
She further displays her Republican convictions through wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade; not believing in even the bastardized idea of gay civil unions; and being a proud, gun-toting/photo-oped member of the NRA. Although called a political outsider and reformer by analysts in Alaska, Palin has had an approval rating of over 80 percent during most of her two years as governor.
But her maverick status—the standards of which now have fallen to mean (1) you don’t come from a pre-existing political family and (2) you don’t allow people in your administration to do obviously illegal things—is now the focus of the mainstream media. Palin did blow the whistle on the Alaska state Republican chairman after a conflict-of-interest case went untouched, but clearly the word maverick has become empty when it can be so generously applied to someone thrown onto the national political stage after only a handful of years in her political party.
The choice of Palin, as much as it is a performance supplement to McCain’s diet of jowl-shaking diatribes against Obama’s celebrity and spryness, does offer a considerably unified platform from which to launch the Republican Party into its convention in St. Paul next week. The ways the Democrats will respond, both immediately and in terms of their long-term strategy to win in November, will be interesting to watch, as will the requisite deluge of comments about Palin’s attractiveness and femininity. Oh yeah, the governor-turned-vice-presidential-candidate was a runner-up in a Miss Alaska beauty pageant. Let the cable news commentary commence.
John Cheney-Lippold is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, where he studies the political economy of the Internet.