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Leighton Woodhouse Headshot

The Palin Trap

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On Friday, following McCain's announcement that Sarah Palin was his choice for running mate, like way too many others I allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy that this was the stupidest decision of a GOP presidential candidate since Dan Quayle was tapped for the role. Now that my post-DNC sense of invincibility has worn off, however, so has my triumphalism. I woke up yesterday morning with a much different sense of the Sarah Palin choice. I think it's a trap.

The McCain campaign knew exactly how both Democrats and the traditional media would respond to the Palin announcement, because it was entirely predictable. Choosing someone this plainly unqualified wasn't a mistake, and it wasn't even a gamble. It was a trade-off.

My suspicion is that the McCain campaign doesn't really care that Palin undermines McCain's case for experience, because they're not planning to use that argument anymore. They've decided that the experience argument is ineffective against Obama's change message, and they're more or less giving it up. Moreover, they know how to respond to attacks on Palin's total lack of qualification for the office, and are in fact inviting those attacks as a way to build sympathy with working class independent voters. That's where Palin's value lies.

Instead of continuing on the experience theme, McCain is front-loading his "Country First" message, and his campaign is taking the competition for working class voters on economic issues much more seriously than they were a few months ago. McCain has finally figured out that this is not going to be a national security election, and that Iraq is a distant second to the recession as the central issue in 2008. So it doesn't matter that Palin has no foreign policy experience. That's not what they need her for - they need her for the debate over the economy.

Of course, Palin is useless for any actual debate on the subject that might require policy expertise and persuasive argumentation. In that, she's similar to McCain, who is not identified as a Senator with any special knowledge on economic issues, and has been exposed as an out of touch multimillionaire. For all these reasons, and with GOP-style economics completely out of style, the McCain campaign is at a major disadvantage in any wonky policy debate on fixing the economy. Knowing this, and knowing that the election is going to be won or lost on whether their ticket is regarded as the best equipped to meet that challenge, the McCain campaign is doing what the GOP always does when it has to fight for working class voters in a debate that Republicans can't win on its merits: they are reverting to symbolic politics, a role for which Palin is tailor-made.

Palin was educated at a not-famous public university, received a bachelor's degree in journalism and became a sportscaster before entering the political arena. She married her high school sweetheart, a commercial fisherman and oil company worker (not an executive, or even a manager). Her political career began at the PTA. She raised four kids while holding down her career, and recently had a fifth. Compared to McCain, Obama and even Biden, her story is easily the most sympathetic to working class voters, especially white women. While the McCain campaign whispers to voters in Peoria that Obama is not 'one of us,' with Palin they will be able to present a face and a story that is reassuringly familiar - much more so than the top of the ticket.

The McCain campaign is going to trot Palin out whenever they need to make the case that they feel America's pain. They're going to contrast her story to Obama's, and even to Biden's (not the part about being a scrappy kid from Scranton, but the part about being in the Senate for a million years). They're going to have her stick relentlessly to her personal biography, and avoid at all costs any discussion of policy. And whenever any Democrat attacks her for being inexperienced, they're going to turn to working class voters and ask why all these Harvard-educated, pointy-headed know-it-alls think that they know better how to help working families than a woman who worked her way through a demanding career while raising five kids, stayed married to her hard-working husband, and was so successful that she became a governor and then a VP nominee. They're going to turn any question about Palin's 'experience,' whether from a Dem or from a journalist, into another elitist attack on working class culture, another example of snooty, brainiac liberals condescending to ordinary Americans. And to boot, a bunch of good old boys picking on Mrs. Mom.

I don't believe that this is a bid for Hillary supporters, I think it's a bid for the same segment of the electorate that almost every tactic from both campaigns has been aimed at: white working class swing voters. I think the inevitable attacks on Palin are part of the purpose of her selection. By turning her into a lightning rod, they will be able to deflect attacks away from McCain toward a far more sympathetic figure, and then use those attacks as evidence in a far more powerful counterattack against typical liberal elitism.

We're best off not taking that bait.

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