Sarah Palin, the former Alaska beauty queen who had been the governor for 20 months when John McCain tapped her as his running mate, is the living embodiment of McCain's enduring weakness.
No, not his fatal attraction to beauty queens who have not been disfigured, though that, too. Palin with her beehive hair is not quite the classic beauty that is McCain's elegant second wife, Cindy, the former Arizona rodeo queen and beer heiress, or his first wife, Carol, a famous swimsuit model before a terrible accident and 23 surgeries left her unsuitable to be the wife of the war hero. Still, at 44, Palin posed in bunny boots and North Face fashions for a Vogue layout nine months ago. Alaska T-shirts call her the hottest governor from the coldest state, and an Anchorage supporter said the country would be wowed by her legs if not by her smarts. In that way she is perfect for Senator McCain.
But a preference for the company of comely women is only a distraction, not an impediment for a good president, as any number of precedents from Jefferson to Clinton show. McCain's terrible weakness is a penchant for impetuous, thoughtless decisions when the pressure is on to do the right thing, so his choice of a person whose biggest public challenge until 20 months ago was being mayor of a town slightly smaller than De Queen, Ark., to be a heartbeat from the leadership of the free world was no shock at all.
McCain has always been famously ruled by momentary passions and snap judgments. As a POW he refused to speak to a cellmate who had kidded him about losing a winning card hand until the poor man was released. He shunned Sen.David Pryor for many years for voting as a member of the Ethics Committee to rebuke him mildly for taking huge favors from the swindler Charles Keating and helping thwart federal regulators. After 9/11, he instantly decided it was time to attack Iraq and maybe even Iran and Syria although they had nothing to do with the tragedy.
When Barack Obama passed over Hillary Clinton for Joe Biden and McCain spotted weepy Clinton supporters on TV he saw his chance to grab millions of female voters. People were talking about the lovely Alaska governor who was something of a maverick because she had done the unRepublican thing of turning on the Republican boodlers who infested the state government and the state's congressional delegation. She would help restore his tarnished image as a maverick. He flew her to Arizona, was charmed and offered her the job.
Sarah Palin may turn out to be brilliant and wise as well as charming, but how could he know?
She destroys his case that Obama is not experienced enough to be president. She also undermines a good half of his issues.
Take taxes. The signal achievement of her brief tenure as governor is a massive tax increase on the oil and gas industry, which she passed with the help of the Democratic minority in the legislature and over the opposition of conservative Republicans. Eighty-five percent of the state budget comes from taxes and royalties from oil and gas production, and revenues were dwindling as oil peters out. So Palin proposed a massive increase tied to windfall profits. We could have used a little of Sarah Palin in Arkansas. She makes the little gas severance tax passed by Mike Beebe look like pocket change. (She also embraced a tough ethics bill written by a bipartisan legislative committee and passed unanimously after indictments in 2006 had decapitated the GOP caucus. We could use some of that gumption in the Arkansas statehouse, too.)
Then Palin and the Democrats turned around this summer and used the tide of oil and gas money flowing into the treasury to mail a check for $1,200 to every person in Alaska to help them with their energy bills, which is as direct redistribution of wealth as you will find outside Das Kapital. It has made her wildly popular. But Palin also wants to give a $500 million cash subsidy to TransCanada to build a liquefied petroleum gas pipeline to Alberta so the big energy companies can market their gas in the lower 48 states.
Palin is not a paragon to Alaska conservatives. State Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican from Palin's town, said she thought it was a joke when someone called her at 6 a.m. to give her the news.
“She's not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” Green said. “Look at what she's done to this state. What would she do to the nation?”
McCain has denounced Democrats and Obama for wanting to tax oil company profits or to tax any corporation. If Palin takes taxes and experience off the table, what else does he have?
Ethics. An ethical avenger like Sarah Palin will shake up Washington, he said. Will she?
The Alaska legislature opened an investigation this summer into whether Palin fired the state public safety director because he refused to carry out a Palin family vendetta. He wouldn't fire Palin's ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper who is in a nasty custody battle with her sister.
Palin says she fired the director to send the agency “in a different direction” and that those 25 or so documented contacts by 14 of her aides and her husband to get the trooper fired were not her doing. The State Police recorded a call from her patronage assistant in which he said: “So Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads saying ‘Why is this guy representing the department, he's a horrible recruiting tool.' You know? So from their perspective everybody's protecting him.”
She's the fresh wind and McCain the seasoned wisdom that Washington needs, right?