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BOB SHRUM: The Improvisational McCain
 

Last week, Frum dared Barack Obama to be dull when giving his acceptance speech. As it happened, the Democratic nominee proved both soaring and substantive. He confounded critics who harped on his supposed lack of specifics—for months, he’s had an encyclopedia’s worth—without sacrificing his singular capacity to speak to hearts as well as minds.

The morning after Obama’s speech, however, John McCain turned Frum’s advice upside down. Normally plodding, McCain served up the stunning ordination of Sarah Palin, a neophyte governor, as a candidate for the second-highest office in the land. It was the day experience died.

McCain’s instinct was right, even if the implementation turns out all wrong. Unwilling to slog to November—and defeat—alongside the Sanforized Mitt Romney or the pale Tim Pawlenty, he tapped Palin to shake up the race. Although he maintains a toehold on the energy issue, McCain can’t compete and win on the economy, healthcare, Iraq or foreign policy. So he is attempting to recast himself as the maverick, the reformer, the enemy of earmarks and pork-barrels, a force for change in the only arena in which he can credibly venture a claim—not substance, but process.

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman or former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge would have served his maverick strategy and been credible candidates, too. (Ridge surely would have threatened Obama in Pennsylvania.) But in the eyes of the Republican base, both men bear the scarlet letter of being pro-choice.

So instead, we have the sudden apparition of Sarah Palin. Although McCain has called her his—soul mate—the evidence indicates she was at best a casual acquaintance. So incomplete was the vetting process that, according to The Huffington Post, a Democratic researcher who recently visited Palin’s hometown newspaper was the first person to ask to review its full archive for the years Palin has been in politics. Who knows what revelations lurk—oops, one arrived as I am writing . . . Palin’s unmarried seventeen year old daughter is pregnant.

Sarah Palin is the most extreme candidate on a major party ticket since Barry Goldwater in 1964. Initially, that may have seemed to be an asset. It allowed McCain to make a maverick pick that still thrilled the kind of right-wing Republicans who were distinctly tepid about the top of the ticket. Longer term, however, he will almost certainly pay a price. The tactical bonus he saw in Palin—an appeal to Hillary’s women voters—is unlikely to pay off as those voters learn more about Palin’s views, which include the belief that abortion should be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest.

For Democrats, the temptation to deride Palin’s wafer-thin resume is almost irresistible. But given that “experience” didn’t work for Clinton or McCain, they should be wary of adopting that failed argument here. Likewise, it?s a dangerous distraction to predict that Joe Biden will destroy Palin in the debate. Just let it happen—if it does. And don’t insist she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, let her show it. (When, by the way, will Palin hold her first press conference?) The challenge for Democrats—and Obama seems to understand this—is to ceaselessly make the case that on the concerns that matter most to most Americans, McCain represents a third Bush term.

The Palin decision speaks volumes about McCain’s leadership, judgment and temperament. McCain dares to be impulsive: He would be the improvisational President. Maybe he really would wake up one morning and “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” just as he sang out with gusto in the spring. McCain improvised again this week as Hurricane Gustav headed for the Gulf Coast, truncating the Republican Convention and putting the balloon drop on hold. Blowing Bush and Cheney off the stage was, of course, and easy call. But McCain will still carry their leaden baggage into the fall. Will Palin add to the load? McCain had wanted to make Obama the issue. Now the issue may turn out to be McCain’s own judgment.

 

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