Palin, McCain and the Weeks Ahead

October 03, 2008

With respect, Jon misses the principal arguments for Sarah Palin. She is the governor of a state with an $11 billion operating budget, a $1.7 billion capital budget and nearly 29,000 employees; she's got more executive experience than any candidate for president or vice president this year. In Alaska she took on the state political establishment, the incumbent Republican governor and the oil companies. She's a rising star who accentuates John McCain's maverick strengths and a "hockey mom" who has developed a powerful tie to ordinary voters.

That link isn't itself an argument for Palin. But being able to connect with, and inspire, the public is an asset —not a liability. As for Jon's argument against "everyday Americans" as political leaders, many great presidents have been more average than elitist. Ronald Reagan, from Eureka College, was a far better leader than Woodrow Wilson, a former president of Princeton. Wilson would have given you 100 Supreme Court opinions he disagreed with, whether you wanted to listen or not.

Barack Obama has also introduced Joe Biden as a Joe Six-Pack, saying, "His family didn't have much money … sometimes moving in with the in-laws or working weekends to make ends meet." Biden himself rarely misses a chance to say, "I was an Irish Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who, like many of yours in tough economic times, fell on hard times." Both veep candidates are trying to portray themselves as ordinary folks.

On experience, I'm all for it. But judgment is at least as important. Biden has 35 years in the Senate, yet his record on national-security issues during that span has been atrocious. He might be able to name Germany's chancellor, but he was wrong in his fierce opposition to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and to the surge in 2007. Even Democrats don't see Biden as president. He got 0.9 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. Forced out of the 1988 White House race for plagiarizing, he is that blend of longevity and long-windedness that Washington accepts as statesmanship.

McCain and Palin face an uphill struggle. Economic woes, war and the natural desire of Americans to give the other side a chance (after eight years with one party in the White House) should mean a big edge for Obama and Biden. But the race is tight, no candidate can get above 50 percent for more than a day or two, and it is likely to stay close right to the end.

The reason is, people have persistent doubts about whether Obama is qualified. NEWSWEEK's poll last month found that 47 percent felt Obama "has enough experience in politics and government to be a good president" but 46 percent said he didn't. In the recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 45 percent said Obama doesn't have "the needed experience," the same as last March. Even the late-September CBS News/New York Times poll found that while 46 percent feel "Obama has prepared himself well enough for the job of president," 45 percent do not. For good reason: Barack Obama has less than half a term in the Senate, where he's proposed little, accomplished less and spent virtually every day campaigning—as if being on the trail is a principal qualification for president.

McCain-Palin must deepen those doubts by pounding away on questions about Obama's character, judgment and values. Drawing on Obama's own record and statements, they need to paint him as a big spender, class warrior and cultural elitist; they need to say he's never worked across party lines or gotten his hands dirty solving big issues. But the duo must also give voters reasons to support them. They must crystallize a positive, forward-looking vision so people who see Obama as unqualified have something to hang on to. It can't be a laundry list of positions. McCain-Palin must offer a narrative about what they will do to help America see better days, especially on kitchen-table concerns.

McCain must launch these themes in the two remaining debates. Knockouts are welcome but unlikely and unnecessary. Introducing a theme and sticking to it day after day worked this past July, when McCain successfully depicted Obama as a celebrity taken with his own press notices. The GOP nominee did it right in the first debate when his assaults were formal and indirect ("Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record …") while Obama was personal and direct ("John, 10 days ago you said …").

McCain and Palin should also respond to key misstatements by Obama-Biden, but only to flip the discussion back to Obama's own deficits. They should not chase rabbits: that would only occupy time better devoted to who can fix the big stuff broken in Washington and reach across the aisle to work for the American people by putting country first.

The election still favors Obama. But Sarah Palin's debate performance, and the passage of the economic-rescue plan, may bookend a bad couple of weeks for McCain. He has a month to turn things around. It's doable; but it won't be easy.

Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President Bush, is a NEWSWEEK Contributor.


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