The Palin Gamble

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin is a gimmick, a desperation pick. It's a last-ditch attempt for McCain to be a maverick again and recapture his reformist credentials. Despite her image, Palin has ethics problems of her own, and she and McCain share George W. Bush's conservative politics. Worst of all, though, her lack of experience raises serious concerns about her basic fitness for office, and McCain's willingness to put his campaign before the good of the country.

Palin does bring a few advantages to McCain's campaign. She reinforces McCain's standing with his conservative base. She is a member of the Christian right who is strongly anti-choice and a favorite of opinion-makers like Rush Limbaugh. Like most Alaskan politicians, her commitment to drilling for oil jibes nicely with McCain's "drill now, drill here" mentality; she even goes a step further than McCain to advocate drilling in Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. And there's the electoral bonus: Palin's popularity in Alaska could move the state, which was slipping towards Obama, back into the GOP column.

Now 44, Palin was raised in Alaska, where she became the mayor of her small town, Wasilla, in 1996. In 2002 she was appointed by then-governor Frank Murkowski to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but resigned in frustration after her ethics investigation into another commissioner stalled. (Palin was later vindicated when the other commissioner admitted violations and paid a fine.) In 2006 she ran on her experience with the commission to challenge Murkowski for the governorship. She has championed ethics reform legislation, signing a bill last year which included a ban on using campaign contributions as bribes (which, remarkably, wasn't illegal before), required lobbyists to report food purchases of more than $15 for lawmakers, and, with some exceptions, banned gifts of more than $250 from lobbyists to lawmakers.

Palin has used this record to call herself a reformer, but there are concerns about her personal ethics. In her run for governor, she campaigned with now-indicted Sen. Ted Stevens. Though she now says she opposed the "Bridge to Nowhere," the pork barrel project that became a national symbol of earmark spending, as Brad Plumer reports it appears she just didn't want to pay for it out of the state budget once it became apparent that federal earmarks wouldn't come through.

Palin is also currently under investigation by the Alaska State legislature for firing a public safety commissioner who refused to dismiss her former brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper. The former brother-in-law had made threats against Palin's sister and her family during a messy custody battle. After initially claiming her staff played no role in demanding the trooper's firing, she was forced to admit that several of her aides had pressured the commissioner before his dismissal. Why Palin didn't simply pursue the matter through the courts instead of abusing her powers as governor is inexplicable. Combined with McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal, it could present an unpleasant narrative that challenges their reform credentials.

Though Palin and McCain share a general political outlook, she is at odds with him on several issues he has made central to his campaign. She has, for example, supported and passed a windfall-profits tax on oil companies that McCain has opposed. Another concern is that Palin simply doesn't know McCain, and the notoriously prickly senator may not grow to trust her, which could make campaign operations difficult, not to mention governing the country.

But the real problem for the McCain campaign is Palin's experience, or lack thereof, as an elected official. Prior to taking office as governor in December 2006 -- just over 18 months ago -- Palin's previous elected experience consisted of serving as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of fewer than 10,000 people, and before that, on the city council. She has neither foreign policy chops nor any policymaking experience at the national level. Just a month ago, she said, "as for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?"

It is possible that the McCain campaign will use Democratic attacks against Palin's experience as a means to go after Obama for his own lack of time on the national stage. But Palin's six years as a mayor pale in comparison to Obama's eight years as a state senator -- his district was significantly bigger than her mayoralty -- or his four years in the Senate. Whether she can equal his vision and gravitas is another question entirely. Her inexperience may work in her favor: she'll have exceedingly low expectations, especially when debating the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden, who may be forced to restrain his attack-dog style. But what is certain is that the Obama campaign's initial response has set a tone for criticism to come: She is too inexperienced to serve as McCain's VP, and her policies represent another four years of George W. Bush, which is not the change we need.

It's clear that at least some of the motivation for this pick is an attempt to continue the story that the McCain campaign has harped on throughout the last week of the Democratic National Convention: Hillary Clinton has been left out of the process and her supporters are up for grabs. As Ann Friedman notes, the McCain campaign clearly hopes Palin will appeal to voters who would put the symbolism of electing a woman before supporting pro-woman policies. But this too could backfire: If Hillary Clinton, formerly ambivalent about Obama's race in the hopes of making history herself in 2012, sees the potential for Palin, a woman whose policies she must abhor, to break the glass ceiling; Clinton may respond by upping the intensity of her work for Obama.

Palin is no doubt a gamble. She could be disastrous, particularly if her inexperience leads to early gaffes, or if her quick vetting was incomplete. But the McCain campaign clearly hopes she will salvage their candidate's reputation as a maverick, which has been damaged by McCain's smears against Obama. This much is clear: the McCain campaign was desperate enough to take this gamble, they must fear the Obama campaign's message -- and the toughness and talent of Obama himself.

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