Going into the Republican convention, John McCain had clawed for himself a fighting chance to win despite a national mood heavily favoring Democrats.
His campaign had figured out a way to break through Obamamania. Ridicule his celebrity to clear the mystique. Then focus the electorate’s attention on the fundamental question: Is Obama ready to lead?
Democrats were having a difficult time answering that question.
With the Republican convention, the McCain campaign had the opportunity to dramatize the story of his heroic service to the country, hammer home the point about Obama’s lack of preparedness, and plant the seeds of doubt about the country’s ability to pay for all of Obama’s promises.
That would have made for an interesting fall.
Then McCain choose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee. The read here is that McCain hijacked his own convention and undermined his best argument.
This became Palin’s convention, not McCain’s. Most of the attention was on her and her narrative, not on McCain’s narrative or Obama’s defects.
McCain had acknowledged that, because of his age, he had a responsibility to choose someone as vice president who was ready to be president from the beginning.
The debate between Democrats and Republicans over the relative preparedness of Obama and Palin to be president has been pathetic. To make a case for either one requires puffing up small events in small arenas.
However, the fact that the debate broke out was a serious setback for McCain. He needed the electorate’s attention to be on his experience compared with Obama’s, a comparison on which McCain clearly comes out on top.
Obama vs. Palin is a much closer call.
The McCain campaign even felt compelled to put out an ad claiming that Palin had more experience relevant to the presidency than Obama. Time spent fighting that argument isn’t time spent advancing the ball in a game in which you are behind and outmanned.
Now, there is a different view of the Palin nomination that’s worth considering.
In this view, Palin expands the election from Obama’s change vs. McCain’s experience in ways helpful to McCain.
For one thing, she closes the enthusiasm gap by galvanizing the Republican base. I concede that point. She certainly has done that.
It is also claimed that she burnishes McCain’s credentials as a conservative reformer and allows McCain to compete with Obama as an agent of change.
I would like to believe that.
In 2000, McCain ran mostly as a populist reformer in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. He would chase big money out of politics, which would free up government to tackle big problems.
In 2008, McCain is running more as a conservative reformer in the mold of Ronald Reagan. He favors keeping President Bush’s tax cuts and adding a corporate income tax cut. He would liberate individuals from dependence on their employer or the government for health care.
He supports choice in education. He would go on a pork-hunting crusade.
Although muted, McCain hasn’t backed away from supporting private retirement accounts as part of Social Security.
Despite Obama’s claim to be something different, he’s an orthodox liberal. A government program for any problem. A more redistributionist tax system.
Obama’s only minor departure from orthodoxy has been mildly expressed support for performance pay for teachers.
So, the material is certainly there for a productive debate about the relative merits of liberal vs. conservative reform.
As an advocate of conservative reform, I’d like to see the election debate turn in that direction. I just don’t think the country is in the mood for it, at least this election cycle.
Bush’s faux conservatism has fouled the nest for conservative reform this election, and I don’t think Palin’s enough to clean it.
The mood of the country seems to be to try something other than Republican rule. The question is whether Obama poses too much risk to indulge that inclination.
The Palin pick muddied the question and at least somewhat balanced the risks.
Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org