History says Democrats ought to worry whenever they find themselves blessed with an able U.S. senator on the ticket and get word of a Republican vice presidential nominee they've never heard of and whose selection seems an affront to responsible governing.
In 1968 Hubert Humphrey ran with a highly regarded Democratic senator from Maine, Edmund Muskie. Richard Nixon ran with something called a Spiro Agnew, which, as it turned out, was Greek for “no contest,” that being what this Spiro would plead in a few months to income tax charges.
Nixon won anyway.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis ran with an eminent Democratic senator from Texas, Lloyd Bentsen. George H.W. Bush ran with something called a Dan Quayle, which, it turned out, meant “you're no Jack Kennedy” in Latin.
Bush won anyway.
So now comes Barack Obama to run with an able, veteran Democratic senator from Delaware, Joe Biden. John McCain runs with something called a Sarah Palin, which, it turns out, means “pro-life Hillary” in the original Aleut.
It's as if Republican presidential nominees select running mates to send a message to the Secret Service to stay especially vigilant. Or maybe they're trying to show us the irrelevance of the office.
Democrats can't wait for Biden to extract Palin's inexperienced hide in a debate. Yes, just as Bentsen extracted Quayle's, three weeks before Bush creamed Dukakis.
These Democrats had best hope this is the year that breaks all patterns and makes history rather than repeats it. This time it's the Republicans, not Humphrey, beset with an unpopular war. This time it's the barrier-breaking and charismatic Obama, not the drab and technocratic Dukakis, leading their ticket.
Another difference is that Palin might actually have more on the ball than Agnew or Quayle. Well, most anyone would.
She's a 44-year-old suburban mom who got elected governor of Alaska in defiance of the Ted Stevens-oil industry machine of her own state party, then delivered on her promise to open and complete negotiations for a natural gas pipeline that ought to keep Alaska cashing in for generations on natural resource wealth. She's pretty good on TV, having been trained in journalism, and she has five children, the oldest serving the military and the youngest an infant with Down syndrome.
Still, though: Does McCain really expect us to believe that he scoured the country for the person best equipped to ascend to the presidency should something happen to him (and, after all, he is 72) and that it turned out to be woman with two years experience as governor of a remote state with a sparse population and an insular politics and who, before that, was mayor for six years of a place called Wasilla, population 8,477?
No, of course not. Two other things are at play.
One is that McCain thinks he can win by keeping the right-wing at bay while stressing his maverick, independent ways. Palin is thoroughly pro-life, which keeps the right pacified. And her entire political biography, while only a page or two, is one of Republican independence and challenge to Republican business as usual.
The other is that Palin is a woman, and, yes, there are women out there so angry about what happened to Hillary Clinton that they might be inclined — emphasizing might — to consider McCain anew on account of the woman he presumes to install just one 72-year-old heartbeat from the presidency.
At the very least, it will present a challenge to Hillary's Democratic partisans to dismiss Palin's qualifications without appearing sexist themselves.
Remember that many of them labeled any and all criticisms of Hillary as reflections of gender bias. They'll need to proceed delicately, then, with the notion that Hillary embodied all of womankind while Palin is merely one woefully unqualified woman.