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What Democrats Should (and Shouldn't) Be Saying About Sarah Palin

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Those of you in the blogosphere, on YouTube, and in the media rushing to "shame" John McCain for choosing an unqualified female running mate as merely some attempt to pander to Hillary Clinton voters, I have a suggestion. Stop. Now.

This widespread reaction to the selection of Governor Palin is patently sexist, assuming the view that over half the nation's people are interchangeable objects with only one remarkable quality. Clearly, Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton, both on the issues and in terms of life experience. If anything, she is Clinton's antithesis. And the simple Republican response to this charge will and should be that she is also the nation's most popular governor, as well as one of its most successful. Expect outrage--justified, in fact--at the insult it is to the life experience, beliefs and supporters of both women to even entertain the notion that their appeal to voters comes from their gender.

These attacks also miss the point entirely. While the story of the "hockey mom" who ran for governor and cleaned up the state house will no doubt peel off some middle of the road female voters, it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that she wasn't chosen because of some insane belief that women would flock to the ticket. Sarah Palin was chosen because she manages the seemingly impossible task of helping to resuscitate McCain's image as a maverick reformer while simultaneously exciting his conservative base--in many cases sexually.

McCain knows he can't win this election with an aggressive national security image alone, and he certainly can't win it by tying himself to the Republican brand. His national popularity has always relied on his image as maverick. So now, he is attempting to reclaim ownership of that reformer persona in hopes of stealing Obama's "change" thunder.

As ecstatic as Democrats may be over the choice of someone so clearly unprepared to take over the presidency, it isn't time to party yet. Palin has an approval rating that bottoms out at around 67% (remarkable even in the heavily-Republican state). Put simply, her appeal and ability are not to be underestimated.

In fact, Republicans should be thrilled by today's media comparisons between Obama and Palin on the subject of qualifications. "John McCain's running mate is less qualified than Barack Obama," doesn't exactly scream, "Vote Obama!" If it did, Ron Fournier wouldn't be saying it.

Worse still, it kicks open the door to potentially unflattering comparisons between the achievements of the two relative newcomers. Palin, as an executive in a sparsely populated state, can claim major successes in the area of reform. Obama, on the other hand, was working as a legislator. His personal contributions to the eventually toothless ethics bill were filtered through lengthy negotiations. Is the comparison fair? Absolutely not. Nonetheless, it creates repeated opportunities for Republicans to read off those "talker vs. doer" talking points.

So why are Democrats now saying, Experience is now "off the table"? It isn't, and the very suggestion is absurd. "Sarah Palin is a total international relations and national security novice," on the other hand, is a clearer statement of the problem, avoids the false comparison and has the added and exceedingly rare political advantage of being entirely true.

This is not to say that Palin's lack of preparation to take over the presidency is not an entirely legitimate and very serious concern. It's just not especially powerful messaging to slam it as "inexperience." Barack Obama won the primary by explicitly pushing "change" over "experience," and Palin has certainly been an agent of change. Pulling a 180 now would tarnish his Washington outsider image and highlight the fact that Biden is by most standards the more qualified than Obama (leading many to believe the Democratic ticket is upside down). Finally, repeatedly referring to the likelihood that your opponent is going to die in office will strike many as distasteful, no matter how real the possibility, and very few voters are operating on the assumption that John McCain will die before Palin and the rest of his administration have some experience under their belts.

It's also not to say that it won't become a huge advantage later in the game. I can't imagine Sarah Palin seriously facing Joe Biden in a debate on international relations. She hasn't really opened her mouth on foreign policy--yet--but it's a safe bet that when she does, she'll offer ample opportunity for Democrats to point and laugh. But Palin isn't going to become an expert on foreign policy in the next two weeks; Democrats have plenty of time to help her embarrass herself. For now, she has other problems that they should be addressing.

How about starting with the fact that she's currently under an ethics investigation for allegedly pressuring the state's Public Safety Commissioner to fire her sister's ex, then firing the Commissioner when he refused to do so. "Another corrupt Republican" will be a tough label to stick on her a week from now, but as a first impression it's an entirely different story.

And then there is Palin as the crazy ideologue. This is a woman who is entirely anti-choice (even in cases of rape and incest) and wants creationism taught in schools. Her views on global warming are even more bizarre, having consistently stated that she's unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change while simultaneously seeming to take an interest in the reduction of greenhouse gasses. It's as if no bombs have dropped, but she's preparing for an invasion, just in case. Is the concept really that difficult to grasp? In a political environment hostile to Republicans, the fact that she is to the right of George W. Bush should be observed. Loudly. Repeatedly.

So, instead of implying that Palin is some sort of moderate with, "John McCain is trying to get Clinton voters," for now Democrats should all be making clear that John McCain just chose someone to the right of George W. Bush. And instead of saying, "Their least qualified candidate is less qualified than our least qualified candidate," Democrats should making sure that people know that Sarah Palin is under investigation for abuse of power, before Republicans lionize her next week.

Then, we can ask her if she knows the difference between Shia and Sunni (and if she does, why she hasn't explained it to McCain).

[Note: This post was written 5 days ago--an eternity in the case of this story. It was unfortunately swallowed by reaction to the pick, and the subsequent drip, drip, drip of more revelations about Palin's personal life has obviously changed things. I most definitely stand behind my key points, however: That Democrats shouldn't attack Palin's experience or call the pick gender pandering, and should instead be focusing on calling out her out of touch politics and job-related scandals.]