Trading Spaces: Palin and Obama

From the taxi drivers mourning slow business from a low turnout to the confused delegates figuring out the uncertain schedule, the Republican National Convention was disappointing. My recent trip there was tainted by lackluster speeches, and a hasty vice presidential decision.

Spotlighting Governor Sarah Palin as the convention’s focus was a directional error. Naturally, one would expect that the convention—or much of the Republican campaign for that matter—would emphasize McCain’s comparative advantage over Obama. Indeed, this comparison has many valid discussion points; differences in tax and foreign policy, for example, continue to define the political debate. Ironically, though, Republicans used the convention mainly to introduce and display their vice presidential candidate, Governor Palin, thus comparing her against the focus of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama.

Aligning the Republican vice presidential candidate against the Democratic presidential candidate is an illogical strategy in more ways than one. Placing Governor Palin on this pedestal pushes Senator McCain out of the picture. Republicans would have benefited to focus less on the inexperienced Palin and more on the experienced McCain. Palin’s vice presidential resume consists of a brief tenure in the city council and then as mayor of Wasilla, a small Alaskan city, after which she was governor of Alaska for only two years. She has no significant national experience, unlike the other candidates on the Democratic and Republican tickets. Instead of reminding the public of his own achievements, McCain squandered a valuable media opportunity on an invaluable running mate.

Comparing Palin’s relatively paltry service in the small Wasilla and 20 months as Alaska’s governor to Obama’s tenure as state senator and then U.S. senator for Illinois can only hurt the Republican Party. Her speech weakly hid this fact, instead comparing her tenure as mayor to his pre-Harvard Law School service as community organizer. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” she quipped.

This issue of experience played a large role in the Democratic primaries, when Senator Hillary Clinton flaunted her experience over Obama’s. McCain had similarly highlighted his experience to Obama’s detriment. Obama’s campaign responded with the message that Obama is experienced enough to think critically about the issues, but inexperienced enough to be untouched by the corruption in Washington, a careful balancing act. Now it seems that Palin is trying to do the same. While this parallel may draw some voters, it seems to provide more evidence instead for McCain’s hasty vice presidential decision on an inexperienced leader.

Perhaps Palin’s inexperience, among other reasons, is why some advisors close to John McCain have criticized this choice, calling it “cynical,” according to Mike Murphy, a senior advisor in the 2000 McCain campaign.

Pitting Obama against Palin instead of McCain also places one minority against another, with possibly disastrous consequences. Comparing a woman and a half-black man feeds off ignorant minority groupings that might isolate some voters. Minority status is not merely a requisite characteristic needed for a strong ticket for each party; presidential campaigns are about leadership, not demographic groups, after all.

Although conventions only confirm, and no longer decide the party ticket, they now serve a great role in publicizing the party platform. The DNC was fairly successful in this way; after it was over and McCain announced his running-mate, Obama led McCain by about seven percentage points in an average of five national polls. The RNC’s repercussions may be different. The convention’s focus on Palin left a lasting impression on Americans. After Palin’s speech Wednesday night at the convention, Obama’s campaign made $10 million—a one-day fundraising record. Coincidence or not? I leave the comparison up to you.

Nafees A. Syed ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Leverett House. She attended the Republican National Convention as a Lifetime Future Frontrunners competition winner.