Why John McCain made his surprise choice

by Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian.
30.08.2008

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain made an impulsive decision last week to select Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. He told his militant supporters that she is "exactly what we need".

Not everyone agrees with him.

McCain is known for his maverick decision-making; this choice is in character. Sarah Palin is a former sportswriter, beauty queen, mother of five and a first-term governor of the least populous American state. She has no national profile and was not at the top of the shortlists for this position.

McCain reportedly overrode his team's advice and decided to go with Mrs. Palin instead of the most probable candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Some have called it a case of instant chemistry, like falling in love. Others have called it "a senior moment".

If McCain wanted to energize his campaign, divert attention from Democratic rival Barack Obama, and create excitement around his own official nomination at the Republican Convention, he has succeeded. The Palin decision has set off a storm of speculation over her impact on the presidential contest. Americans are talking about little else.

Most significantly, critics of the decision have expressed doubts that she could inherit the supposedly available 18 million disaffected women voters who backed Hillary Clinton and lost to Obama. Mrs. Palin's politics are in direct opposition, and her lack of experience makes her a controversial replacement for Hillary.

Mrs. Palin clearly has been thinking in national terms as the vice presidential decision neared. She has spoken of the U.S. need to have a strong military and sound energy policy. And pressing for the opening of Alaskan reserves, she has said it is "nonsense not to tap a safe domestic source of oil".

And she is not a believer in need to control carbon emissions to attenuate global warming. Before being selected by McCain, she said, "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made."

There is no doubt that McCain needed an injection of fresh energy in his lacklustre campaign. Although he was closing the gap against Obama in poll showings, he seemed to be heading for the underdog role in the coming two months - up against a man 25 years younger at the head of a Democratic Party in full resurgence. Tens of millions of new Democrats are registering around the country to vote on November 4.

Mrs. Palin may be able to temper this trend, at least in the short term. She is conservative enough to help bring the Republican right wing into line, she a fiscal conservative, pro-life (anti-abortion), an anti-corruption fighter, and a dedicated reformer.

She has publicly argued for U.S. Congressional authority to exploit more of Alaska's oil and gas reserves. She hunts, shoots and fishes, and she is a proud member of the National Rifle Association which runs the U.S. gun lobby for the right to bear arms.

In her initial appearances, she sparkled with youthful, combative energy, in contrast to McCain's hang-dog look and monotone stumbles through uninspired speeches. Mrs. Palin speaks well without a script. The crowds of McCain activists cheered her at the announcement ceremony. Within hours, the campaign seemed to have rebranded itself.

Now the test begins. Vice presidential candidates will hold several debates in the coming two months and her direct opponent will be Senator Joe Biden, a veteran debater and a Washington insider with international credentials. Facing him down will be a challenge for her.

Mrs. Palin has already been caricatured as a fabulous Christmas gift to the Obama campaign. She must now convince the Republican party and the great American undecided vote that her selection was more than a desperate move by John McCain.

Some Republicans are concerned that a woman with so little experience in government - and zero international record - should be a heartbeat away from the presidency. John McCain is 72 years old and has been fighting melanoma cancer for several years. His physical ability to complete his four years is in question.

I expected McCain to make his vice presidential selection on the assumption that the person would be capable of taking over his job in a health emergency. Sarah Palin, for all her political acumen, will be on trial for the next two months as the U.S. voters decide.

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