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John McCain's Choice of Sarah Palin: What It Says About Him and What It Tells Moderates


Thursday, Sept. 04, 2008

John McCain's pick for Vice President, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, unfortunately indicates that McCain is not nearly the maverick some had hoped he might be. And that, in turn, means he has not been true to himself.

Had McCain chosen Joe Lieberman, an Independent, or Tom Ridge, a pro-choice conservative, two choices he obviously found comfortable, then he would have proved his independence and his faith in his own solid judgment. He would also have separated himself from the Bush legacy. With either choice, he would have reinforced the reasons he might have been crucial to American destiny if he were an independent-minded leader - his experience and his longstanding knowledge of international affairs and war.

But McCain did not have the guts to make either choice. Instead, it appears that he finally caved to the far right wing of the Republican Party, largely consisting of conservative Christians, and rejected his own instincts in order to choose a candidate calculated to please them. Palin is straight out of the right-wing's playbook on women's issues - opposed to women's right to choose, and in favor of abstinence-only education.

Yet to voters who are not focused on those issues alone, Palin is doubly problematic for McCain's image as a self-directed leader, because her record in Alaska of seeking the highest per capita earmarks from the federal government for the residents of Alaska directly contradicts McCain's anti-pork and anti-earmarking passions.

Will McCain's decision to betray his own nature and instincts for a possibly better shot at the presidency pay off? That remains to be seen, but I doubt it.

The Palin Choice: Strong Evidence That McCain Will Continue the Bush-Style Church/State Mixture

I am going to leave the abortion-related issues and the details about Palin's children to the side, except to say that anyone who thought that Palin would grab the "women's vote" -- and, in particular, the votes of those who backed Hillary Clinton -- should not be advising anyone who actually wants to arrive at the White House. Women are not fungible and to the extent that the McCain camp thought otherwise, there is real reason to be concerned about the future of the Republican Party.

A different concern is that the Palin choice signals that McCain is capable of continuing the right-leaning theocracy Bush built over eight years - a notion that would have been laughable until this turn in his campaign. McCain was famously not deferential to the evangelical pastors who felt entitled to exert political pull over him, and he is not a man who wears his faith on his sleeve, or who, until recently, seemed to think faith was a crucial defining characteristic of a national leader. The choice of either Lieberman or Ridge would have been a choice that sent a strong message that he would not be controlled by the right wing of the party, that he would have focused on the international crises we face, and that he is a leader who can unite rather than divide - messages that might have appealed to swing voters, including potential crossover Democrats. The choice of Palin, however, sends precisely the opposite message.

The two most important issues to the right-wing conservatives are abortion (along with the related - at least in their worldview -- issue of stem cell research) and the reduction of the distance between church and state. They are openly hostile to the concept of "separation of church and state," while they back government endorsement of Christian principles and symbols, as well as government funding of Christian mission. Many believe they have a vested right to, in effect, own American culture, history, and/or government. They have been encouraged in these misguided views by an Administration that, for eight years, has been eager to serve them -- whether by appointing a "religion chair" in the Department of Justice, by turning Department of Justice staff away from traditional civil rights to work on cases giving religious landowners special privileges in the land use context, by making a pro-life stance a litmus test for judges, or by instituting faith-based funding aimed primarily at Christian groups.

Given the Palin Selection, Claims of Independence and Moderation Ring False

There are those who will point to Joe Lieberman's speech at the Republican Convention as evidence that McCain is genuinely open to moderates, and that he will not be controlled by the so-called "base." But how many times can Republicans set that trap and expect moderates to fall for it?

When Bush was the candidate, he focused the Convention on moderates like Giuliani and Schwarzenegger, forcing the far right into the wings. Then, after he won, he promptly abandoned any pretense of caring what moderate Republicans might care about. McCain's playbook looks so similar to Bush's, at this point, that one has to wonder whether, for McCain, the adjective "maverick" is now only truly accurate when used in the past tense.

Whatever Palin's individual virtues (or lack thereof), her choice says a lot about who McCain has become. For those hoping or expecting to see a power shift within the Republican Party, moving away from Bush politics, her candidacy is a wake-up call. There was a moment (right after Obama chose ultra-liberal Senator Joseph Biden) when McCain might have seemed ready to sweep up all of the moderates, but with Palin, the two parties are back to where they have been in recent history: Each is teetering at one end of the political spectrum with a vast expanse in-between. After months, even years, of hearing talk of the need for "change," we just have politics as usual.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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