When did the presidential campaign become a contest for VP between Obama and Palin?
This is very bad news for Democrats up and down the ticket, because it indicates that the Democrats have once again (as usual?) misjudged the temper of the times and and played it safe, thereby losing control of the battle of perception. Joe Biden has failed to make a dent in the collective consciousness of the media, let alone the public, since his selection, which was more notable for its half-assed rollout than for the buzz it generated. Hillary's speech got her 26 million viewers, Bill got fewer than that, 24 million, the following night, and Biden did not increase on those numbers even as he was supposed to have been the headliner of the evening. Biden is simply out of sight, out of mind, which does not bode well given the importance of the VP in the recent administrations.
Bill and Al may have been the best, most audacious presidential ticket ever because Clinton took the unusual step of choosing someone who repeated and amplified all of his own strengths - Southern, young, intellectual, a believer in government, wonky, and a professional public servant. The Big Dog broke all the rules that had previously governed VP choices like geographical balance, ideological balance, and not being overshadowed by your running mate. It was a plus that he had a VP who was every bit as smart, sophisticated and driven as himself. It was a choice that spoke to Clinton's confidence in himself and in his party.
Neither Biden nor Palin are choices from positions of strength. However he came to his decision, McCain selected a running mate who provided strengths he does not possess. His most damaging vulnerabilities were within his own party and who he chose was dictated by the need to shore up that wall. To do this, he picked a person who appeals to much of the worst in the Republican Party. It was a strategically necessary pick for him as without a solid party behind him, McCain is guaranteed a loss. Palin gives him an opportunity to win.
What Palin brings to the table is a sharp contrast to McCain, not the least of which is gender, playing an obvious domestic (and domesticating) policy role to his claim to foreign policy expertise. Before any commenters wax rhapsodic about McCain's FP chops, read Pat Lang's Sic Semper Tyrannis. Perhaps what Palin does best is purely visual. McCain's age is transformed from crabby old fart to avuncular pater familias. The choice to shore up his weakness within the party by going for the culture warriors' vote ironically reinforces his myth of being a maverick (as opposed to being a loose cannon), increasing his appeal to moderate Republicans, Independents and undecideds. Circumstances may have compelled the choice, but it has paid off politically.
I am not as sure as BTD that Biden was the best Obama could have done for VP once he had ruled out Hillary, but it was probably the only option he allowed himself. The choice was, from any honest perspective, an admission of weakness. It tacitly confirmed the claims about his lack of seasoning at a national level or in national politics. He has never been at the head of an organization like the National Governors Association, which Bill Clinton headed in 86/87. He has not been a public figure involved in a particular cause besides his own campaigns, as Hillary has been for the Children's Defense Fund, her historic battles for women's rights, or her unending work to get health care for all, or Al Gore's life-long dedication to the environment. These are the kinds of experiences that matter because they require work with many kinds of interests, agencies, and organizations to make headway towards long-term goals.
To digress for a moment, I'm not talking about the shallow "experience" argument, as though occupying a job for X amount of time instantly gives you some kind of expertise in that area, or that there is some magic to having held executive vs. legislative positions. I apply this as rigorously to Palin as to Obama. It has to do with possessing a thoroughgoing knowledge of how national governance works, how to interact with complex and conflicting bureaucracies, and how to maintain a political philosophy in the midst of the practical demands for negotiation, compromise and pure power plays. On this basis, both Obama and Palin come up short though it is unproductive to try to compare them to each other. Measure them against their peers. Take Palin and look at her in comparison to other governors at comparable points in their careers, such as Bill Clinton, Ah-nold, Gregoire of Washington, Napolitano of Arizona, Pawlenty of Minnesota and, yes, Kaine of Virginia. How does Obama compare to a 1/2 term US senator like Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden? This should also be done of McCain and Biden himself, for that matter.
Biden is a sign of weakness because of who Obama passed over. Whether or not you would have wanted to see Hillary as VP, that choice would have been a measure of his confidence in working with a more senior politician with her own dedicated power base. There is no corollary for McCain to choose from on the Republican side because there is no one of that stature in his party. I mean, can you think of anyone? To have selected Hillary would have fallen somewhere on the "no guts, no glory" scale between JFK offering the post to LBJ (grudgingly, wanting a rejection, knowing it was the key to victory) and Bill asking Al (unafraid of the competition, respectful of Al's greater national statute, gambling on a powerful administrative team). Biden has mocked Obama in public, there is no synergy in the pairing, there is not enough contrast to produce creative counter balance, and Biden stands as repudiation of all the message of change.
The choice of Biden did nothing to secure party supporters who were not already on board, though it may have prevented some establishment types from jumping ship. McCain got a lot more political gains among Republicans with Palin than Obama did among Democrats with Biden. It was the exhortation of the Clintons that brought wavering Democrats home, and it was clear from the commentary of people who are not kool-aide drinkers that Obama's speech was judged by whether he could keep their momentum going for him. The panicked reaction to Palin on the Left shows not only their revolting classist and misogynist worldviews, but also the uncertainty that the base will show up in November. The message is not "we're better" but "they're worse", which does not exactly exude confidence.
The fallout of these choices on either side is that Obama is left in a contest with Palin, McCain side-steps direct fights and Biden is marginalized as the over-exposed face from the Sunday talking heads shows. This is not a comparison the Democrats should be trapped into making.
Obama in comparison to McCain stands up well. The message is more believeable when you're up against a DC insider who is like some barnacle encrusted piling of a dock to no where, rotted away by the incessant pounding of the political tides. McCain does not convey gravitas very well, and actually comes across as weird looking and mean even when he's not trying to pull a Dick Cheney. However, the Saddleback interviews should have put everyone on notice that the comparison wasn't a slam dunk. Now onto the scene comes Palin. Aside from being an accomplished presenter, what she brings to the table is something we haven't had in our Republicans of late, the ability to channel powerful resentments with an admixture of charm. She is in the Reagan mode (though no where near as polished and deadly) not like Nixon, DeLay, Gingrich, Buchanan, and the other angry white men on the Right. She is going right after Obama and doesn't bother with Biden (At a town-hall meeting in Virginia Beach, Biden called Palin a formidable politician and said he was impressed by her speech, which he said was stocked with "good, funny lines. . . . I'm glad they weren't about me. I was sitting there thinking, 'Whoa, zinger.' "), which is not a luxury the Democrats had vis-a-vis Cheney and which they now cannot avoid with Palin, having spent so much time building her up in the media. They should have listened to Hillary.
Palin has not been off the front page of the New York Times for a week and always with more coverage than Obama. Biden barely registers as present. All of this leaves McCain free to avoid the grumpy old fart role and be the wise old uncle. His age is being turned into an advantage and he is shielded from comparisons to his opponent.
This is the price that Democrats are paying for the political cowardice of the Obamacans. McCain would not have chosen Palin if Hillary has been on the ticket. I think the nod would have gone to Pawlenty in that case. Hillary would have spent her time rallying her people to give her the mandate to push for her objectives, most of all UHC, instead of trying to triage the festering wounds of the primaries. It would have been a massive FU to the press corps, but as Bob Somerby patiently explains, the Democrats will not treat that pack of jackals like the enemies they are.
The Democratic campaign has become a reflection of the lack of nerve that has dogged the Obama campaign since the start, substituting smears and dirty tricks for solid policies, going for fixes and backroom deals rather than reaching for the truly audacious possibilities.