Palin As Political Crack

For at least the last few weeks, many Democrats have been suffering from a case of badly frayed nerves. In the week after the Republican National Convention, as McCain pulled even (or ahead) with Obama in the polls, many Democrats began to express concern that Biden was an unfortunately conservative pick, especially when compared with the phenomenally successful choice of Sarah Palin. Many Democrats wailed that Obama should have picked Hillary instead.

I don’t buy it. I think the choice of Palin was a desperation move. To keep Obama from running away with the election over the summer, the Republicans threw all the oppo research they could find at Obama, along with trying to turn one of his major advantages (his charisma) against him. But that still left Obama with an advantage in the polls. (and I should note, I have a suspicion that there’s just not that much left in the cupboard, oppo research-wise, which is why the Republicans are relying on ads that are just outright falsehoods).

So the McCain people chose to go for broke by choosing Palin, realizing that making a safe choice was unlikely to make up for the strongly Democratic tide. And for a while, the Palin pick worked. Support by the Republican base surged (as you can see in the McCain favorability ratings among Republicans). McCain got a very considerable bump in the polls. But I think, looking back, that it will be Obama who will be shown to have make the more shrewd choice of VP. Palin is already starting to look like the political equivalent of crack for the McCain campaign–she got them feeling good for a while, but they are coming down from the high now. And there’s nothing left to put in the pipe. The flood of bad news stories about Palin are increasing, and it turns out she has given the Democrats a very considerable avenue to attack McCain on–basically arguing that the McCain/Palin ticket’s supposed Maverick credibility is bogus, and that in the process of defending Palin’s reputation, they are “losing their honor” in the bargain. What is even worse, Palin really doesn’t have any profile on policy substance (aside from energy, which with crude oil heading below $90/barrel and the financial crisis coming to the fore may be diminishing as an issue anyways). Along with McCain’s heavily personal appeal at the RNC, the Palin choice looks like part and parcel of the Republican campaign’s inability to use their convention to leave a strong perception in the minds of voters about how the party would try to fix the economy–as opposed to just reforming government. I think these weaknesses are just showing up in the polls, but I predict that with the events of the last few days, we are going to see a considerable decline in support for the Republican ticket, with Obama moving up to a stable five-point lead by the beginning of October.

On the other hand, Obama probably dodged a bullet by not picking Hillary. If he had, we’d still be hearing the drip-drip-drip of stories about the Clinton’s finances (note unlike those we have been getting about Palin’s reign in Alaska). The Biden pick was “no drama,” and I think it will turn out to have been right for precisely that reason. Picking Biden ensured that the VP choice would not create a distraction from the campaign’s basic message, which is the superiority of the Democratic program and the need to break from the policy trajectory of the last eight years. While this meant that the Democrats didn’t get as strong a bump out of their convention, I think it did mean that they are in a stronger position over the next six weeks to keep the conversation where they want it to be than the Republicans, who are going to continue to be hounded by concerns about Palin and the absence of any strong Republican message on the economy.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.