The McCain campaign's desperate gamble on Sarah Palin, aimed at reversing the Arizona senator's downward spiral, has met with decidedly mixed reaction from a key target constituency: conservatives.
Much of the commentary on the right has run from the favorable to the ecstatic.
"Republicans were demoralized," wrote the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes. "Sarah Palin changed all that. She was not only a surprise choice but also an electrifying one, and her selection has far-reaching implications. Her entry will change the nature of the presidential race. And if the McCain-Palin ticket wins, it has the potential to carry Republicans through a rough patch and even ensure conservative dominance of the party--for years to come."
Mark Steyn, in turn, contends in the National Review that Palin is not just "'all-American', but hyper-American. What other country in the developed world produces beauty queens who hunt caribou and serve up a terrific moose stew?... Next to her resume, a guy who's done nothing but serve in the phony-baloney job of 'community organizer' and write multiple autobiographies looks like just another creepily self-absorbed lifelong member of the full-time political class that infests every advanced democracy."
McCain and his supporters made the surprise choice of Palin after examining their prospects in all the battleground states and concluding that they face strong odds of losing unless radical steps are taken to shift the political momentum. They had no data to show that Palin would dramatically alter the playing field in McCain's favor, but they knew that she would provoke the kind of controversy that can be a "game-changer."
On the plus side, Palin could wake up the Republican base, especially social issue conservatives, many of whom have been lukewarm toward McCain. In addition, Palin could appeal to some Hillary Clinton backers still nursing wounds from her defeat. On the down side, however, are the dangers that Palin's hard-core social conservatism will alienate moderate Republicans and independents, and that her brief tenure as Alaska Governor makes a mockery of McCain's charge that Obama lacks the experience to be president.
While the applause for Palin among conservatives has been loud and long, there are prominent, articulate dissenters, including columnist Jonah Goldberg; former counsel to Dick Cheney Shannen Coffin; National Review senior editors Rick Brookhiser and Ramesh Ponnuru; and former Bush speechwriter and columnist David Frum.
"McCain's supporters argue that he is more serious about national security than Barack Obama. But the selection of Sarah Palin invites the question: How serious can he be if he would place such a neophyte second in line to the presidency?" Frum asks. "So this is the future of the Republican party you are looking at: a future in which national security has bumped down the list of priorities behind abortion politics, gender politics, and energy politics. Ms. Palin is a bold pick, and probably a shrewd one. It's not nearly so clear that she is a responsible pick, or a wise one."
"Either McCain thinks the war on terror isn't serious, or he thinks the vice-presidency isn't," Brookhiser argues. "We have shown the same color-by-numbers mindset that liberals did when they rallied to Obama. Liberals love Obama because he is a Numinous Negro. Conservatives love Palin because she has a Downs baby and an M-16. For both sides, that is all on earth ye know and all ye need to know. You might call it mystical and childish. May I be so wrong that a hundred harpies will pluck my eyeballs."
"The choice also says a lot about McCain. First, that he is a bit desperate," Coffin writes on the National Review site The Corner. "Second, that he is one arrogant SOB. McCain is essentially telling the world that he doesn't really need a Vice President.... Rather, the Office would seem poised to return to the 'proverbial warm bucket of p***' category."
Goldberg is less critical than openly worried: "It all comes down to whether Palin holds up under intense scrutiny. If it looks like this was purely a stunt, then McCain's critics will be right that his "country first" mantra rings a bit hollow. If, on the other hand, she proves to be as impressive as she seems, no one will care about how small Wasilla is. All I can say is I hope McCain's vetters did their job."
Ponnuru, in turn, raised a laundry list of doubts:
"Inexperience. Palin has been governor for about two minutes. Thanks to McCain's decision, Palin could be commander-in-chief next year. That may strike people as a reckless choice; it strikes me that way.....To the extent the experience, qualifications, and national-security arguments are taken off the table, Obama wins. And it's not just foreign policy. Palin has no experience dealing with national domestic issues, either....Tokenism. Can anyone say with a straight face that Palin would have gotten picked if she were a man?"
All of Palin's conservative critics are respected and influential members of the movement. They are, however - at least publicly -- in the minority.
Conservative author and publicist Craig Shirley, who is often willing to criticize the GOP, told the Huffington Post that Palin is "both a daring and brilliant choice. McCain has given conservatives a reason to have a stake in this election."
Weekly Standard editor William (Bill) Kristol unleashed his pen in Palin's behalf:
"A spectre is haunting the liberal elites of New York and Washington--the spectre of a young, attractive, unapologetic conservatism, rising out of the American countryside, free of the taint (fair or unfair) of the Bush administration and the recent Republican Congress, able to invigorate a McCain administration and to govern beyond it. That spectre has a name--Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska chosen by John McCain on Friday to be his running mate. There she is: a working woman who's a proud wife and mother; a traditionalist in important matters who's broken through all kinds of barriers; a reformer who's a Republican; a challenger of a corrupt good-old-boy establishment who's a conservative; a successful woman whose life is unapologetically grounded in religious belief; a lady who's a leader."
The cold reality is that all analysts of the right will, over time, calibrate their assessment of Palin as the political fates of McCain and Obama become clearer. If McCain wins -- or even if he loses but the conservative base turns out in force -- the choice of Palin will be vindicated. If not, the huntress/beauty queen/mother-of-five will go the way of most losing vice presidential candidates, soon forgotten.