By Jerry Lanson
Barely 12 hours after Barack Obama’s stirring yet specific acceptance speech buoyed supporters, John McCain shook up the presidential race by selecting a largely unknown first-term governor and mother of five as his running mate.
Democrats have initially reacted by deriding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s utter lack of foreign policy experience. Certainly McCain has left himself vulnerable to lines of attack, but, for Democrats, this is the wrong one. Barack Obama on Thursday night argued that judgment, not experience, should guide foreign policy. He made a good case for the argument and for his judgment. So it only seems fair to find out what Sarah Palin’s judgment on foreign policy is like before going on the offensive against her.
This Democrats do know this about Palin: She’s a strong conservative, who opposes all abortion, is against contraception, believes creationism should be taught alongside Darwinism in the schools, is a lifetime member of the NRA, and favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which McCain has opposed). This thrills the Republican right but makes her vulnerable to nuanced Democratic attacks down the road. The party certainly can remind the Hillary Clinton supporters McCain is pandering to that Sarah Palin is no Hillary -- in fact her positions are diametrically opposed.
But for the most part, Democrats should ignore Palin and save their fire for McCain himself. They should question his judgment in appointing a total newcomer in turbulent times, an individual untested on any policy issue abroad or in the Lower 48 (Obama, in comparison, has visited world leaders in Europe and the Middle East, gone to war zones, waged some 20 debates with a formidable senator and former president’s wife, dealt with legislation on a national scale and appointed a partner, in Joseph Biden, who can compliment his relative weakness in foreign policy).
Even more so, Democrats should target the hypocrisy of the Republican’s campaign. How, they should ask, can John McCain play up a public image of independence while actually pandering to the right? How can he promote a public image of independence while running an advertising campaign of smear and fear? (Perhaps Democrats should, have “some fun,” as McCain likes to say before launching his nastiest ads, and ask whether McCain is having difficulty remembering from week to week whether experience really does count, or whether he’s for or against the Bush tax cuts, for or against offshore oil drilling, for or against his supposed independence of action and word symbolized by his “Straight Talk Express.”)
John McCain, the Democrats should insist, cannot have it both ways. He can’t repeatedly bash Barack Obama for being too inexperienced and too unprepared and then select someone as his understudy who has less experience and less preparation. He can’t tie himself to the mantle of the neoconservatives and the social conservatives, embrace the Swiftboating tactics of the last election cycle and then proudly signal that his campaign is about maverick-minded reform. He can't be the insider and the outsider at the same time.
The American public is not stupid. Lay out these themes clearly and repeatedly, and people will get it. (It doesn’t take 60 seconds of seeing the Obama family on stage to realize that these are not fire-breathing radical extremists that some McCain backers try to paint them as.)
If Democrats hammer the theme of hypocrisy in the McCain campaign, Republicans will limp out of their convention like a jalopy with a gas vapor lock. They’ll sputter and then stall.
But the last thing Democrats want is to mock the one woman who did make it to the “final four” – Sarah Palin -- thus reminding Hillary Clinton’s backers of the wounds the Democrats’ successful convention week did a great deal to heal. The Republicans are trying to goad them into just such a mistake.