John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin puts his campaign firmly on track toward a hard-edged drive to mobilize the GOP's conservative base, threatening to erase what remains of his centrist maverick image and his appeal to moderate and independent voters.
The McCain of days past who attacked leaders of the Christian right as "agents of intolerance," who voted against "budget busting" Bush tax cuts, who broke ranks with his party on issues from gay rights to campaign finance reform, is now a faded memory.
What remains unclear is the extent to which McCain actively participated in the transformation of his political persona, and the extent to which he has been passive -- pushed and shoved by aides, partisan pressures, and external forces.
McCain and Palin now head a ticket that is emerging as more red-bloodedly conservative than Bush-Cheney in 2004 -- when conservatism would have appeared to have reached its zenith -- with a platform substantially further to the right on issues ranging from education to immigration.
McCain will be campaigning on a party platform which produced
ecstatic praise from some of his harshest critics on the right. Donald J. Devine, Vice Chairman of the American Conservative Union, declared, "It's certainly a vast improvement over the 2004 document."
Back in February, when McCain first emerged as the likely nominee,
Devine suggested that it might be better to lose on November 4 than to win with McCain:
"Conservatism is not about winning elections. That is for the political parties. Indeed, sometimes it is good to lose an election."
The current platform eliminates 2004 language calling for a "humane" immigration policy with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and instead denounces even the prospect of amnesty.
While the 2004 platform praised the Bush administration's increased federal spending on education, the 2008 document declares, "Although the Constitution assigns the federal government no role in local education, Washington's authority over the nation's schools has increased dramatically."
The Arizona senator, who once took pride in his open communication with the press and in his willingness to take hostile questions with a smile, is now battling the media, refusing all queries regarding Palin's vetting, killing an interview with CNN in retribution for tough questioning of a campaign aide, and cutting access for the New York Times after it published a negative story.
The choice of Palin demonstrates that McCain is rolling the dice on a strategy he and some of his top aides once explicitly rejected. Palin's selection suggests that McCain is downplaying the importance of moderate to liberal suburbanites who were shifting toward the Democratic Party as Christian conservative influence permeated the GOP. One of McCain's major advantages in the past has been the belief (unsubstantiated) of many pro-choice voters that he shared their views. With Palin at his side, the campaign's strategy is now directed at building enthusiasm among voters who seek the complete prohibition of abortion, who want creationism taught in the public schools, and who aim to increase the role of religion in government.
Palin's demonstrated appeal to the religious right has set in motion a political logic pushing McCain to aggressively demonize Barack Obama. The more McCain abandons his centrist past, the more he will, of necessity, turn to those wedge issues which have historically worked to fracture the Democratic coalition, building turnout among conservative white voters.
This logic, in turn, intensifies pressure on McCain and the GOP to focus ever more intensely on Obama's liberal liabilities, his past membership in Jeremiah Wright's Trinity Church, his association with unrepentant 1960s bomber William Ayers, and on whatever other similar themes can be developed.
As McCain brushes aside his past flirtations with liberalism, the process to watch will be the willingness of his new allies in the conservative wing of the GOP to forget his 2001-2 'threat' (feint?) to jump ship from the Republian Party, his pride in co-sponsoring bills with Russell Feingold and Ted Kennedy, and his warning that conservative religiosity posed the danger of making Republicans "an endangered species."
Fortunately for McCain, as November 4 approaches, the political memory of his new supporters gets shorter and shorter.