Sunday morning on Face The Nation, CBS' Bob Schieffer asked Barack Obama if he considered Sarah Palin qualified to be president of the United States. Obama danced around the subject and said, essentially - I didn't get the exact quote; I was making spaghetti sauce at the time and listening from the kitchen - that Schieffer's question was for the American people to answer.
Of course, Palin supporters like to say that such a question makes Obama uncomfortable because he's not qualified, either - that he lacks the knowledge and experience necessary to be leader of this debtor nation of ours for the next four years.
But there isn't much of a comparison to make there. In terms of resumes, comparing Obama and Palin is apples to oranges. While "executive experience" is important - Palin has a little, Obama none - there are other ways of measuring their respective qualifications. Here are a few: Grasp of facts and history, understanding of foreign affairs and the forces at work in the global economy, appreciation for the scope and depth of the nation's financial problems, ability to utter a complete sentence and rational statement that might inspire people.
By that measure, any objective person can see that Obama is more qualified to be president than Sarah Palin is. The differences, of course, are cultural, philosophical and psychological. People vote for the candidate they most identify with, not necessarily with the one they know to be the most qualified by the measures I just listed.
So, no matter how smart, informed and articulate Obama might be, millions will not vote for him for a variety of reasons, starting with, but not limited to, the fact he is a Democrat, just as they did not vote for John Kerry over George Bush four years ago.
Some women - even, I suspect, Republican women - are struggling with the Palin factor. Some would like to consider voting for her because of her gender, but they won't because they realize her limitations, or because they don't agree with her opposition to abortion. Some are downright insulted that, when the GOP finally put a woman on the national ticket, it was one with such a limited understanding of national and international affairs. More conservative women appreciate her because Palin represents the small-town, small-think, anti-intellectualism that brought us Bush. They see Obama as an elitist; they see Palin as "just a hockey mom" who needs time to learn where Kandahar is. At this point, identity politics is probably the key factor in whatever support Sarah Palin has.
But let's leave this Obama-Palin comparison.
It's the wrong one.
The real importance of Sarah Palin in the 2008 election is how her selection as the Republican vice presidential nominee reflects on the man who chose her. That's as it should be for all presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican. The first big decision they have to make is the choice of running mate, their successor in the event they are unable to serve in the Oval Office.
John McCain's first big decision of his campaign for president was his selection of the first-term governor of Alaska. Obama's was the selection of Joe Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election to the White House.
You can criticize Obama's choice on the grounds that pulling a long-serving U.S. senator to your side might not be in keeping with your claim to be a change agent. On the other hand, if you're being knocked for not having enough experience, then choosing an old hand was a good move.
On the other side, there's a much bigger problem. As time goes by, the more we hear from Sarah Palin, the more obvious it becomes that this woman is in over her head. Her answers to questions about foreign policy in the Katie Couric interview were embarrassing. I chuckled at Palin's statements about Russia and Canada, then started to feel sorry for her.
(My sympathy is limited, however. Palin did not have to agree to be on McCain's ticket. A person with a more moderate ego might have said, "I don't think I'm ready for that enormous job, senator. Thanks, but not at this time.")
While it first appeared that McCain was doing something dynamic and "maverick-like" in picking Palin, one month later, his choice looks more impulsive and unnecessarily desperate than anything else.
I have never run a small business, and I've only limited "executive experience," but I know this much: One of the key measures of a good boss is the people he or she picks to help run a company, or a college, or a hospital, or a military unit. For enterprises that are stable and successful over long periods of time, it is key that the CEO, president or general picks smart, effective managers who can succeed them. Enterprises can rise or fall on these transitions.
Political analysts tell us that, when Americans go to their polling precincts on Election Day, they do not consider the vice presidential candidate, that they vote for the top of the ticket. That is the conventional wisdom, based on history. I think that's busted this time. Certainly, the economy is the major issue of this election. But for those who are still undecided at this point, Sarah Palin being possibly a heartbeat away from the presidency must be a factor. If McCain loses this election - and if it turns out the late-summer polls that had him tied with or ahead of Obama were accurate - then his choice of Palin will be historic, and not for the reason the GOP had wished.