10/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Sarah Palin? It's the Base, Stupid

What if John McCain had chosen a white man with Sarah Palin's extremist views as his running mate? Instead of a week of media glee that the maverick was back, would the punditocracy have been forced to dwell on a more hard-headed analysis of the power of the radical Right in the GOP? Could this have been the reason for the Palin pick?

The Republican convention was the last remaining minefield for McCain to cross in his quest for the presidency. The convention was dominated by conservative delegates, who have publicly complained about his insufficient conservatism. But the majority of his audience in America's living rooms find the views of the GOP Right repugnant, disapprove of Bush, and think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Party politics demanded McCain get right with the Right. Simple arithmetic dictated that he win the votes of swing voters who want the Right out of power.

Despite the whining of the McCain campaign about unfair press coverage of Palin, McCain only averted the embarrassment of a nationally televised intraparty fight by abandoning his own preferences for a running mate and selecting Palin. As it has been widely reported here and in other places, McCain's top choices were two white men, Senator Joe Lieberman and Governor Tom Ridge. Both are pro-choice. Facing that prospect, the Right warned McCain, watch what we'll do to you if you choose that path. After all, many conservatives have been grumbling that perhaps a few years out of power would be just the right medicine for the ailing movement. McCain snapped to attention, turned on his heels, and with little vetting and less preparation, named Palin as the person most qualified to become next in line to be president of the United States.

McCain had until this moment of the campaign derided Senator Barack Obama for lacking the experience to be president. So why didn't McCain tap one of the many men with governing experience in the GOP's huge reservoir of social conservatives to win the hearts and votes of the Right?

Let me suggest that Republican strategists and McCain remember all too well the 1992 Republican convention. Then, another GOP so-called moderate, running for the presidency as the economy tanked, appeased the GOP right by turning his convention over to his rightwing critics. George H. W. Bush missed the mark with his selection of Dan Quayle. Conservatives were happy, but the press enjoyed the gaffes too much to play up the 'change' angle of Quayle's youth. Bush was helpless to counter the spectacle of the radical Right.

As we all saw from the convention, the base was ecstatic. "McBrilliant!" Rush Limbaugh declared in triumph after Sarah Palin's speech.

Folks, we have a future beyond November here. Regardless what happens. . . .

The convention has been unified on the basis of conservatism. Properly executed, beautifully articulated. . . .

"This lady has turned it all around. . . . From now on, on this program John McCain will be known as John McBrilliant.

McBrilliant indeed. At the moment when all the contradictions and reversals of John McCain's four year quest to succeed George W. Bush would be broadcast live from the Xcel Energy Center to a nation sick to death of GOP policies, the McCain campaign threw up enough distractions to survive the hazing.

If McCain had chosen a man with Sarah Palin's extremist views, I wager we would have heard a requiem for McCain the once-beloved maverick. Palin is not on the ticket to woo the millions of women who voted for Hillary Clinton. McCain's campaign chose her above all others to divert attention from his humiliating capitulation to the extreme Right of the Republican party.

Nancy Cohen is the author of The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914 and The Social History of the United States: The 1990s (forthcoming October 2008).