Early returns on the politics of the selection are good. Senator McCain's choice of Governor Palin, a feisty young reformer from small-town Alaska, performed the signal service of driving Barack Obama's acceptance speech out of the news within hours after it was delivered. Polls since Friday suggest that the shift in attention from Senator Obama to Palin probably restrained the bounce that Obama had generated at the Democratic convention.
Better yet, Palin has electrified the GOP base. McCain's campaign got a $7 million bounce in donations after she was picked, which shows how much conservatives like her and how muted their support for McCain had been. Many had the feeling that they were watching a rerun of Bob Dole's losing campaign and were unenthused about McCain's candidacy. Until now.
Palin's nomination comes, of course, on the heels of Hillary Clinton's narrow defeat at the hands of Obama. Notwithstanding whatever bitterness remains from that contest, it is doubtful that many Clinton Democrats will pull the lever for McCain, no matter who shares the ticket with him. But the remarkable outpouring of interest in Palin so far suggests that she could make a difference to independent and moderate women voters, a critical group that is up for grabs every four years.
A bit more subtle, but perhaps equally important, is Palin's appeal to blue-collar voters, who are likely to be intrigued by a former beauty queen and star athlete who knows her way around a commercial fishing boat, hunts moose, and is married to a champion snowmobile racer – Alaska's equivalent of a NASCAR driver.
McCain's choice was greeted with derision from the Obama campaign, which ridiculed Palin as "the former mayor of a town of 9,000" with "zero foreign policy experience." Of course, it didn't take long for people to notice that Palin's executive experience exceeded Obama's. As Rudy Giuliani put it Sunday on "Face the Nation": "She's vetoed legislation, she's taken on corruption in her party and won. She took on the oil companies and won. She administered a budget successfully." Obama, meanwhile, has "never run a city, he's never run a state, he's never run a business, he's never administered a payroll, he's never led people in crisis."
Opinion has divided sharply on the subject of Palin's experience. Some think that McCain has sacrificed his biggest advantage over Obama – his incomparably more substantial qualifications for the presidency. Others counter that the fact that Palin arguably has more relevant experience than Obama – the would-be president, not vice president – only serves to highlight Obama's vulnerability.
The question is in part one of perception, and it is too early to know how most voters will view the implications of Palin's place on the ticket. The Obama campaign's hasty retreat from its first, derisive comment on Palin's experience, however, suggests that the Democrats are by no means confident that the comparison between Palin's background and Obama's is one to which they want to draw attention, at least for the moment.
Beyond demographic and tactical considerations, Palin has the potential to refocus attention on the issue of reform. Palin really is what Obama pretends to be, but is not: a citizen activist who entered politics in order to fight entrenched interests and bring about tangible, practical change. The track record shows that Obama, far from being a "change agent," is a relentless careerist who has brought little, if any, major reform to Chicago; Springfield, Ill., or Washington.
Palin's story not only stands as an implicit rebuke to Obama's pretensions, it could help focus attention on McCain's own very real credentials as a reformer. McCain is a spending hawk who has vowed to veto any bill enacted by Congress that contains an earmark. The presence of Palin, who can succinctly be introduced to voters as the governor who sold the state jet and spiked the Bridge to Nowhere, can only help McCain push the issue of reform – the needed antidote to Obama's vague calls for "change." Given the centrality of the reform issue this year, Palin's history as a citizen activist with a proven track record of taking on the status quo and winning may make her, of all the potential candidates in both parties, the one best qualified for the job of vice president.
In the end, Palin's contribution to the McCain campaign will depend on how she performs and whether she appears up to the job. The same media outlets that have viewed Obama's many gaffes with tolerance will pounce on any misstep that can be taken as a sign of Palin's inexperience. But McCain boldest move could turn out to be his best.