Happy birthday, Johnny Mac! You're 72 now, a cancer survivor, and a presidential candidate who has said on many occasions that the most important criteria for picking a vice president is whether he or she could immediately step in if something happened to the president. Your campaign against Barack Obama is based on the simple idea that he is unready to be president. So you've picked a running mate who a year and a half ago was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of 8,500 people. You've selected a potential leader of the free world who knows little or nothing about the major issues of the day beyond energy. Oh, and she's being probed in her state for lying and abuse of power.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's debut in Dayton on Friday was good political theater. She delivered a pitch-perfect speech (presumably written by McCain's ghost writer, Mark Salter) with a panache that suggests she could be a natural on the national stage. The well-kept secret of her selection let the GOP step on the story of Obama's boffo acceptance speech in Denver. It's not hard to see why she appealed to McCain: her middle-class roots; her older son headed for Iraq with the U.S. Army; her opposition to the earmarked "bridge to nowhere," which is arguably the only domestic issue that gets McCain excited. If camera-ready Palin helps McCain close the gender gap and win in November, she'll be history's hockey mom.
But there's a reason that rookies rarely score hat tricks. It's not her lack of name recognition; America loves a fresh face, especially one that's a cross between a Fox anchor and a character on "Northern Exposure," the old TV show about an Alaska town about the size of Wasilla. The problem is that politics, like all professions, isn't as easy as it looks. Palin's odds of emerging unscathed this fall are slim. In fact, she's been all but set up for failure.
"What is it exactly that the vice president does all day?" Palin offhandedly asked CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow in July. Kudlow explained that the job has become more important in recent years. Palin knows the energy crisis well, even if her claim on "Charlie Rose" that Alaska's untapped resources can significantly ease it is unsupported by the facts. But what does she know about Iranian nukes, health care or the future of entitlement programs? And that's just a few of the 20 or so national issues on which she will be expected to show basic competence. The McCain camp will have to either let her wing it based on a few briefing memos (highly risky) or prevent her from taking questions from reporters (a confession that she's unprepared). Either way, she's going to belly-flop at a time when McCain can least afford it.
Even on energy, Palin has her work cut out for her. First she has to convince McCain to do a 180 and support drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Her much-repeated sound bite that ANWR is only the size of the Los Angeles airport and thus not environmentally destructive sounds good, but won't do much to counter the argument Obama made in his acceptance speech, which is that drilling is only a "stopgap" measure for achieving energy independence. Palin will benefit from very low expectations in her debate with Joe Biden, but she's going to have to have a photographic memory for new information to avoid getting creamed.
Governors often run for president, but only after many months of prep work on what they might confront in the White House. The last governor chosen for vice president was Spiro Agnew in 1968, and he was the governor of Maryland, which is right over the line from Washington, D.C., not thousands of miles away. Veep candidates with extensive Washington experience like Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle were nonetheless grilled on policy and proved a drag on the ticket when they looked unpresidential...................