“We're not running against Gov. Palin.”
– David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist, on “Fox News Sunday,” Sept. 7, 2008
Actually, the Obama campaign is running (in part) against Sarah Palin. Her name will appear with John McCain's on the ballot. She'll debate Joe Biden Oct. 2. And as the new kid on the block, she'll continue to get substantial media coverage over the next two months.
Will that coverage continue to be as belittling of Palin as much of it has been so far? Probably. It's not just that many in the media don't like her politics and don't identify with her socially or culturally. They're offended that McCain picked Palin without, so to speak, consulting them. The establishment media take pride in their role as gatekeeper to our political process and social discourse.
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So the gatekeeper media's reaction has been: Who is Sarah Palin to suddenly show up on the national stage? We didn't vet her. And we don't approve of her.
Martin Peretz, hysterical liberal
Thus Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the venerable New Republic for the last 34 years, wrote a blog post Thursday while he was “still reeling from last night's malign hysteria at the Republican convention. This is a rotten crowd, even the pious Christian Huckabee and certainly Mayor Giuliani and the aspiring vice president, Sarah Palin.”
Despite reeling from the speeches, Peretz was able to “give Palin her due: she is pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy's.” He continued that it was “good to see that the Palin family didn't torture poor Bristol, at least in the open.” And he concluded: “Yes, please God, do bless America and rescue us from these swilly people.”
No malign hysteria there.
The Obama campaign, which would like to get votes from some of these very Americans, isn't going to follow Peretz down that rabbit hole. To the degree they have to address the Palin question, they'll stick to the argument they made in their first reaction to the Palin announcement: “Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency.”
According to Safire's Political Dictionary, the “heartbeat away from the presidency” locution may date from 1952, when the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, attacked the Republican V.P. candidate, the 39-year old Richard Nixon, “who asks you to place him a heartbeat from the presidency.”
A half-century before, William McKinley's campaign manager, Mark Hanna, alarmed by the prospect of the 41-year-old Teddy Roosevelt as the V.P. nominee in 1900, is reported to have warned “that there is only one life between the Vice President and the Chief Magistracy of the nation.”
In neither case were voters moved by the “heartbeat away” concern. McKinley and Eisenhower won easily.
Should voters be alarmed by a relatively young or inexperienced vice presidential candidate? No. Since 1900, five vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency during their term in office: Teddy Roosevelt in 1901, Calvin Coolidge in 1923, Harry Truman in 1945, Lyndon Johnson in 1963 and Gerald Ford in 1974.
Teddy Roosevelt took over at age 42, becoming our youngest president, and he's generally thought to have proved up to the job. Truman was V.P. for less than three months and had been kept in the dark by Franklin Roosevelt about such matters as the atom bomb – and he's generally thought to have risen to the occasion. Character, judgment and the ability to learn seem to matter more to success as president than the number of years one's been in Washington.
A political choice? Of course!
Did McCain think Palin his very best possible successor? Perhaps not. Did Barack Obama think Biden the absolute cream of the Democratic crop? Perhaps not. They undoubtedly thought highly enough of their running mates to have confidence in their ability to take over their administration in case of incapacity or death. I think most voters will accept that basic judgment.
But – shocking to say! – both Obama and McCain also took political considerations into account in making their selections.
One thing McCain undoubtedly had in mind was Obama's failure to pick Hillary Clinton. As The New York Times' Patrick Healy reported Friday, “If the election remains close, the next president could very well be picked by what Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, calls ‘Wal-Mart Moms' – white working women with children living in the exurbs and in rural parts of battleground states….”
McCain didn't just pick a politician who could appeal to Wal-Mart Moms. He picked a Wal-Mart Mom. Indeed, he picked someone who, in 1999, as Wasilla mayor, presided over a wedding of two Wal-Mart associates at the local Wal-Mart. “It was so sweet,” said Palin, according to The Anchorage Daily News. “It was so Wasilla.”
A Wasilla Wal-Mart Mom a heartbeat away? I suspect most voters will say, No problem. And some – perhaps a decisive number – will say, It's about time.