John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice president last week came as a surprise, not least to Democrats spoiling for a fight. In anticipation of McCain’s two likeliest vice presidential picks, Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Democratic opposition researchers had spent the week perfecting their battle plan. Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffle, was all set to tar Romney as a “job-killing machine” who couldn’t be trusted to steward the economy. On Democratic blogs, the discussion was whether to cast Gov. Pawlenty as a corrupt Republican hack or, as the enterprising posters at Daily Kos urged, a corrupt Republican hack who also is soft on sex-offenders. In the event, the would-be attack dogs were rendered toothless: Gov. Palin didn’t lend herself to the readymade smears.
Undeterred, Democratic activists have sought to diminish Palin – and by extension the McCain campaign – in other ways. One is to claim that Palin undercuts McCain’s charge that Obama is unqualified to be president. As the New York Times put it, McCain “spent the summer arguing that a 40-something candidate with four years in major office and no significant foreign policy experience was not ready to be president. And then on Friday he picked as his running mate a 40-something candidate with two years in major office and no significant foreign policy experience.”
The charge has a superficial plausibility. It is true that Palin lacks experience in foreign-affairs, though, as a state legislator, they were out of her purview. But Democrats make an issue of experience at their peril. For one thing, as vice president, Palin would have time to learn on the job. The same cannot be said of a President Obama. Although his foreign policy résumé is scarcely more impressive, he is running for the role of commander-in-chief. If, moreover, Palin’s foreign-policy inexperience makes her selection the most “irresponsible decision by any leading presidential candidate since [George H.W.] Bush picked [Dan] Quayle,” as the ever-excitable Andrew Sullivan asserts, voters should be even more concerned about Obama’s place atop the Democratic ticket.
If Democrats nonetheless have embraced the inexperience charge, one reason is their conviction that her youth makes Palin easy prey for Joe Biden who, in this account, will dominate the vice presidential debate. But one might question whether Democrats’ confidence is justified. It is based on the unquestioned assumption that Biden’s 35-years in Congress make him an undisputed expert on foreign policy. Biden’s recent decisions, by contrast, inspire no such confidence. In May 2006, he proposed partitioning Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regions. The plan, strenuously opposed by both American military leaders and the Iraqi government, looks in hindsight like a spectacular miscalculation. Likewise, Biden’s opposition to the successful surge of troops in Iraq does not recommend him as a foreign policy heavyweight. With this track record in mind, Palin could do worse than borrow Barack Obama’s line that while experience in foreign affairs is important, it is no guarantee of good judgment.
Stirring doubts about a politician’s experience is a traditional campaign tactic. More curious is the complaint from some Democrats that Palin is a token “chick pick.” Especially coming from those who so fervently championed Hillary Clinton’s woman-against-the-world cause, this is nothing if not amusing. For instance, Times editorialist Gail Collins assures readers that Clinton sought to appeal on the basis of her experience while Palin is a mere affirmative action pick. Where Hillary presumably would have struck a blow for womankind, Palin will be “a step back” for the fairer sex. Leaving aside the implausible suggestion that Clinton brought any substantial political experience to bear in her candidacy – other than her recent senate career, she has none – it’s demonstrably false to claim that Clinton was above gender pandering. What was Clinton’s boast about causing “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” if not a naked appeal to feminine solidarity? No doubt there is some truth to speculation that Palin was chosen at least in part to attract women voters, including disaffected Clinton supporters. But one can’t help detecting a double standard in the Left’s support for identity politics from a Democratic campaign but not its Republican rival.
No more compelling are Democrats’ attempts to portray Palin as a servant of the oil companies. Obama spokesman Bill Burton wasted little time claiming that Palin is a pawn for the “agenda of Big Oil.” The irony is that Palin has repeatedly taken on oil companies in Alaska, sometimes over the opposition of the Republican establishment. Her successful 2006 challenge to incumbent governor Frank Murkowski centered on her opposition to a deal with three big oil companies – Alaska-BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips. The deal would have awarded the companies rights to build a gas pipeline while exempting them from paying state revenues. Palin again outraged oil companies when she imposed higher taxes on the Alaskan oil and gas industry, leaving Alaska with the highest resource taxes in the world. Whatever one makes of the tax scheme, it reverses reality to claim that Palin does Big Oil’s bidding. And considering that Palin supports drilling for oil and gas off of Alaska’s coast – an issue with broad national resonance – it seems the opposite of a wise strategy for Democrats to dwell on the subject.
This is not to imply that all attacks on the governor are beyond the pale. She remains vulnerable on a number of fronts. For Democrats and Republicans alike, Palin's inexperience in foreign affairs will remain an issue – at least until her views become better known. It would be interesting, too, to learn more about Palin’s peculiar support for Pat Buchanan’s 1999 presidential bid. As for her support for teaching creationism alongside evolution in public school science classes, it seems profoundly misguided, playing into overwrought Democratic conspiracy theories about a “Republican war on science.”
There is, in short, plenty in Palin’s record that deserves serious scrutiny. It should be possible to have that debate without Democrats distorting what that record is.