A different brand of change

Our view: The Republican vice presidential candidate is a gutsy, if untested, choice

August 31, 2008

Sen. John McCain, ever the maverick, dared to be different in choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a relative unknown, as his vice presidential running mate. His surprising pick has both conservative Republicans and Democrats cheering, for radically different reasons. Governor Palin's performance will come under intense scrutiny from the national media in the coming weeks, and just who will be cheering in November remains to be seen. But either way, voters will make history in November, either by electing the first black president or the first female vice president.

Mr. McCain's selection of Governor Palin is clearly a gamble aimed at undercutting Sen. Barack Obama's promise of change by offering his own reformer. Along the way, Mr. McCain hopes to shore up his support among conservative Republicans and win over Democratic and independent women, now the largest share of undecided voters, including many who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton for president.

To conservatives in the Republican base who have been uncomfortable with Mr. McCain's maverick ways, Governor Palin is the dream nominee. An evangelical Christian, she is a mother of five whose oldest son is heading to Iraq this month with his Army unit. A right-to-lifer with a Down syndrome child, she belongs to the National Rifle Association, is an avid hunter and, get this, a union member who, as governor, vetoed legislation that would deny benefits to same-sex partners of Alaska state employees.

Still, compared with Sen. Joseph Biden, Mr. Obama's seasoned running mate, her vulnerabilities appear enormous. Her limited political background undercuts criticism of Mr. Obama's relative lack of experience in military and foreign affairs and raises serious concerns about her ability to lead in Washington. She's the youthful counterpoint to a 72-year-old presidential contender, but as an inexperienced president-in-waiting, she is likely to give many voters pause. Governor Palin's forthright opposition to abortion, a position shared by Mr. McCain, is also likely to cost her support among pro-choice women who are indifferent to Mr. Obama.

And yet in tapping this 44-year-old reformer who is popular among Alaskans, Mr. McCain has recognized the disillusionment of younger voters with the status quo in Washington. As governor, she has been willing to reach across party lines in pursuit of pragmatic answers to public issues. In accepting his party's nomination last week, Senator Obama reinforced his message of change before a packed stadium - and a national television audience of 38 million - and more strongly articulated his presidential agenda, a strategic necessity in showing voters why he offers more for them than Mr. McCain. Promising to solve America's dependence on Mideast oil in a decade and cut taxes for most of the middle class, Mr. Obama set out to convince voters that he is not only a speechmaker, but a policymaker.

Beginning tomorrow at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Senator McCain and Governor Palin will begin making their case to voters.

Then, after a long primary season and a summer of political sparring that featured too many personal attacks and minimal discussion of issues, the candidates should begin debating each other like adults. For voters to be prepared to pick a president in November, they need to know just where Senators McCain and Obama stand on an array of critical issues, from the current economic doldrums to the health care funding crisis and our continuing struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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