Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Palin By Comparison

By Shawn Healy
Senator John McCain answered Senator Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech on Thursday and vice presidential nomination a week ago Saturday with his own running mate selection last Friday. To the surprise of both the political and media establishment, the Arizona senator selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. What follows is an assessment of this pick as I make my way to the Twin Cities for the Republican National Convention.

Conventional wisdom suggested that McCain would make a so-called safe pick in light of the fact that he trails Obama only marginally and is even tied or ahead in many head-to-head tracking polls with fewer than 70 days remaining until the general election. Adding to this assumption was Obama’s pick of Washington-insider and seasoned campaigner Senator Joseph Biden as his second-in-command.

Surely McCain would tap the nationally-vetted former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, or the “Sam’s Club” Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty. True, the prospect of a pro-choice running mate trickled through the air, elevating the prospects of former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge or Independent Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, but conservative pundits lampooned the idea and threatened to sit out the election. Indeed, McCain was allegedly honing in on Lieberman until the waning days of the selection process.

What followed was first a head-fake from the campaign, as they refused to leak the pick on the night of Obama’s historic acceptance speech, but top surrogate Pawlenty cancelled all scheduled appearances, adding to the buzz that the Land of 10,000 Lakes would coronate their leader one week later in the St. Paul convention. By Friday morning, word broke that both Pawlenty and Romney were informed of their runner-up status, and a stealth pick in the form of Palin wafted through the air.

The story broke just hours before McCain’s scheduled rally in Dayton, OH, as Sarah Palin accompanied the 72-year old senator on the stage as the crowd led two renditions of “Happy Birthday.” McCain praised Palin for her not-of-Washington stripes, willingness to take on the party establishment, and executive experience. Her leadership on energy issues and her support of the military were also touted.

Palin then dashed to the podium as McCain stood by her side throughout her maiden national speech. She praised her new running mate, then proceeded to introduce her family. Unlike Biden six days earlier, Palin held her punches, not even mentioning Obama, remaining above the fray with an optimistic, if general address. They exited the stage to Van Halen’s “Right Here, Right Now,” ushering in the barrage of 24-hour news cycle analysis of what they termed a “game changing” decision.

The reality is that presidential races are typically decided by the two individuals atop the ticket, not the number two’s. Running mates, more than anything else, are meant to balance the ticket, be it regionally or ideologically, or to “double-down” on a candidate’s perceived strengths. Biden was certainly a balancing pick, adding Washington experience and foreign policy bona fides to the relatively untested, yet inspirational, Obama-led ticket.

Palin, 44, balances out the Republican ticket with her relative youth complimenting the oldest candidate to ever receive a major-party nomination in McCain. Her executive experience supplements his 26-year tenure in Congress, and outsider status offsets his inside-the-beltway reputation.

The pick also underscores McCain’s maverick tendencies, to walk into headwinds and do what he thinks is best contrary to popular opinion. The selection has been received by the media establishment as high risk, but potentially yielding a lucrative return. Palin has only been governor for less than two years, serving two terms as Mayor of tiny Wasilla (Population 9,000) prior to her election in 2006. She boasts little national security experience, seemingly undercutting one of McCain’s chief lines of attack against Obama, especially with the septuagenarian atop the ticket, yet her son will soon deploy for Iraq. In this respect, like McCain and Biden, she has “skin in the game.”

Palin has led on ethics reform, adding to McCain’s mantra of reform, be it campaign finance, global warming or immigration. Moreover, she boasts successes in the area of energy policy, be it supplying the lower 48 states with oil or leading the way on renewable forms of energy. This issue alone has emerged as a pivotal one in this election and the Republicans, McCain included, believe they have the upper hand. Palin is also an avid hunter and lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and her advocacy of 2nd Amendment rights should resonate with white working class voters in critical swing states.

Her strong socially conservative beliefs also helped placate McCain’s tenuous relationship with a group he once dubbed “agents of intolerance.” Her staunch pro-life position on abortion speaks to McCain’s commitment to pursue an end to Roe v Wade. Indeed, Palin gave birth in April to a son with Down’s Syndrome, and spoke passionately against the 90 percent of all Down’s Syndrome pregnancies that now end in abortion. A mother of five, her husband is a commercial fisherman and accomplished snowmobiler. McCain’s camp believes he can make further headway amongst outdoorsmen and women on this front.

The Palin pick is also a proverbial “shout out” to the former supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, many of whom are either committed to McCain or considering a protest vote. Her speech invoked Representative Geraldine Ferraro’s unsuccessful VP bid in 1984, but also the 18 million votes that Clinton won in her epic primary battle this past winter and spring. Whether this olive branch will be enough to convince “Hillraisers” to cross the aisle remains to be seen, but Palin’s presence on the ticket guarantees that history will be made this fall in one form or the other.

In the end, McCain won plaudits from the socially conservative base of the Republican Party and also women everywhere by tabbing Palin as his running mate. Palin's relative inexperience, particularly at the national level, opens the door for criticism on a front where McCain previously maintained a clear advantage over Obama. At the same time, Obama undermined two of the key tenets of his campaign in selecting Biden, namely his relative newcomer status in DC and his early opposition to the Iraq invasion. Biden has served in Congress eight years longer than McCain and sponsored legislation that enabled President Bush to use force in Iraq as a condition for failure to carry out inspections for weapons of mass destruction.

While Obama played to his vulnerability on inexperience and commander-in-chief credos, McCain struck against his advanced age and Beltway reputation, while also playing to a swath of female voters still steaming from a bitter Democratic primary. Unlike Obama, he arguably made his pick from a position of strength, although some have panned it as a desperate ploy in a race where he is slowly losing his grip. Time will tell, but the dynamics of the fall campaign are finally taking shape.

Shifting to the matter at hand in St. Paul, MN, the Republican National Convention has been scaled back significantly in wake of Hurricane Gustav. Tomorrow’s first day is all but cancelled, and plans for later in the week remain in limbo. It is expected that Governor Palin will speak on Wednesday and accept the VP nomination, and McCain will follow on Thursday with a benediction of his own. Check back here for on-the-scene coverage of political theater that is ever more climactic with the final two month sprint to the White House in tow.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at