To call Governor Sarah Palin a “wild card” doesn’t begin to describe the drama and uncertainty that she has injected to the presidential race. Conservatives are elated and Democrats are worried, but we’re still finding out about her. No one is quite certain who she is and what she means for the race.
Democrats are hoping that her VP face-off against Senator Joe Biden is the Hindenburg of debates – a disaster of unmitigated proportions that sends the McCain ticket up in flames and rekindles concerns about John McCain’s judgment in selecting her and, indirectly, about his age and health. Republicans hope she’ll be a magic bullet to enliven the base, grab Hillary Clinton voters and nail down problematic Western states. It’s too soon to tell.
But though the Palin experiment is still in its early stages, she has already contributed something crucial to the ticket: she is allowing John McCain to run as John McCain.
Just by being on the ticket, Palin has given the conservative base more than they could have hoped for when McCain won the nomination.
Her elevation from obscurity (after conservatives feared a pro-choice Democratic Joe Lieberman) and the revelation about her pregnant daughter set off a media feeding frenzy — thereby cementing the affections of social conservatives and transforming her into a veritable icon. The result is almost more than conservatives could have hoped for: A gun-shooting, pro-drilling and pro-life female icon, selected by a Republican candidate who has often found himself at odds with the conservative base.
For McCain, this has meant a new lease on life, not only as a viable candidate, but as one free to take liberties with policy positions that previously would have incited the conservative gallery to open revolt.
For example, McCain recently ran an ad touting his support for stem-cell research – which, if understood to refer to embryonic research, is opposed by many pro-life Republicans. The apostasy went largely unnoticed.
When Lehman Brothers’ liquidation and the takeover of A.I.G. sent shock waves through the economy and the presidential race as well, McCain responded with red-meat populist rhetoric out of the playbook of Mike Huckabee – or any of the Democrats who ran this year. Fiscal conservatives privately tut-tutted, but his threats to go after executive salaries, impose a new regime of regulation and punish greedy titans of industry only drew yawns from critics who months ago lambasted him for offering a partial bailout for homeowners who couldn’t make their mortgage payments.
Now, the conservative base is busy defending Palin against an onslaught from the Obama camp and the mainstream media (which is more loathed than Obama could ever be by conservatives). Moreover, with visions of a once improbable win now firmly in their heads, conservatives are wary of crossing their nominee. After all, he found them the most attractive political spokeswoman for many causes they hold dear that they ever could have imagined. If the price of getting to a “real” conservative president is a term or two of a McCain administration, with ample training for someone they view as a political rock star, so be it.
So while the voters — and the McCain camp — wait to find out whether Palin is the key to a historic upset or the straw that finally breaks the back of the McCain campaign, McCain is finally getting to run something like the campaign he always wanted to run. He is never so happy as when he is preaching the gospel of political unorthodoxy, bipartisan compromise and anti-Washington reform. And, in the greatest irony of a race replete with them, the conservative base doesn’t seem to mind a bit.