William Kristol: Sarah Palin is changing the game

With a bold choice for vice president, John McCain has given himself a fighting chance to win the election


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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Thursday night, after Barack Obama's well-orchestrated, well-conceived and well-delivered acceptance speech in Denver, Republicans were demoralized. Twenty-four hours later, they were energized -- even exuberant. It's amazing what a bold vice-presidential pick who gives a sterling performance when she's introduced will do for a party's spirits.

There are Republicans who are unhappy about John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. Many are insiders who highly value -- who overly value -- "experience." There are also sensible strategists who nervously note just how big a gamble McCain has taken.

But what was McCain's alternative? To go quietly down to defeat, accepting a role as a bit player in The Barack Obama Story? McCain had to shake up the race, and once he was persuaded not to pick Joe Lieberman, which would have been one kind of gamble, he went all in with Sarah Palin.

Some media mandarins were upset. One reporter noted that -- horrors! -- Palin had never even appeared on "Meet the Press." Time's Joe Klein remarked disapprovingly that McCain didn't know Palin well and had never worked with her. He noted by contrast "that when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who had worked with Ferraro, was not only vouching for her, but raving about her."

Of course, Ferraro was widely regarded as an unsuccessful VP choice. Maybe rave reviews from D.C. insiders aren't the best guarantee of future success.

And Obama supporters can't get too indignant about Palin's inexperience. She's only running for the No. 2 job, after all, while their inexperienced standard-bearer is the nominee for the top position. And McCain doesn't need a foreign policy expert as vice president to help him out.

Meanwhile, a Republican operative here mentioned to me that Barack Obama has cited this 1992 comment by Bill Clinton:

"The same old experience is irrelevant. You can have the right kind of experience or the wrong kind of experience. And mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change."

But the crucial political fact is that the Obama campaign no longer has a monopoly on "the courage to change." Facing an electorate that wants change, McCain has given himself a fighting chance to win the election.

And he has staked a lot on Sarah Palin.

Voters are unlikely to learn much that is new or surprising about Obama, McCain or Joe Biden over the next two months. Palin's performance as the vice-presidential nominee, on the other hand, is the open and unresolved question of this campaign. She is, in a way, now the central figure in this fall's electoral drama.

If Palin turns out not be up to the challenge for which McCain has selected her, McCain will pay a heavy price. His judgment about the most important choice he's had to make this year will have been proved wanting. He won't be able to plead that being right about the surge in Iraq should be judged as more important than being right about his vice-presidential pick.

McCain has gambled boldly on Palin. If she flops, McCain could lose by a landslide.

On the other hand, if Palin exceeds expectations, and her selection ends up looking both bold and wise, McCain could win.

The Palin pick already, as Noemie Emery wrote, "Wipes out the image of McCain as the crotchety elder and brings back that of the fly-boy and gambler, which is much more appealing, and the genuine person." But of course McCain needs Palin to do well to prove he's a shrewd and prescient gambler.

I spent an afternoon with Palin a little over a year ago in Juneau, and have followed her career pretty closely ever since. I think she can pull it off.

I'm not the only one. The day after the VP announcement, I spoke with an old friend James Muller, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. He said that Palin "has been underestimated over and over again. She took on the party and state establishments here in Alaska, and left them reeling. She's a very good campaigner, a quick study and a fighter."

Muller called particular attention to her successes in passing an increase to the oil production tax and facilitating the future construction of a huge natural gas pipeline. "At first the oil companies thought she was naive, and they'd have their way. Instead she faced them down and forced them to compromise on her terms."

Can she face down the Democrats, Joe Biden and the national media over the next couple of months?

John McCain is betting she can. Perhaps, as he pondered his vice-presidential selection, he recalled the advice of Margaret Thatcher: "In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."


William Kristol is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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