LONDON – Senator John McCain is a genuine American hero. He was a brave airman, with a fine war record. Unlike the so-called “chicken hawks” who avoided service in the Vietnam War themselves but could barely wait to send young Americans into Iraq to fight, McCain’s life is not at odds with his politics. In the Senate, while supporting President Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, he has been prepared to stand up for his independent judgment on issues such as campaign finance reform and climate change.
So when, as a presidential candidate, McCain said that, if elected, he would seek to work with Democrats and independents, and that he would search for consensus, it was easy to believe him. After all, this is exactly how he had behaved as a senator. There seemed every chance that he would apply this approach to the choice of his running mate. His friend Senator Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat and a hawk on the Iraq war, appeared to be the most likely pick.
We know what happened. With his campaign apparently dead in the water, McCain reached out all right – to the right-wing fundamentalists in his own party. Governor Sarah Palin strode onto the national stage, rhetorical guns blazing.
Whatever else you say about the governor’s views, no one could call the choice of the “hockey mom” from Alaska a bold bid for consensus. She was chosen, to borrow the commentators’ jargon, to energize the party base, which comprises hard-liners suspicious of McCain’s lack of enthusiasm for the causes that fire them up, such as creationism and a ban on abortion.
According to the McCain campaign’s calculus, a political outsider with redneck views would appeal to white working-class voters. Moreover, a woman on his ticket might attract some of those disappointed by Senator Hillary Clinton’s loss to Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic race.
So far, the selection of Palin seems to have paid off. Questions about her record have been sidestepped; her inexperience is lauded as a virtue; any criticism is dismissed as sexism.
Speaking as a one-time campaign manager in British politics, there seem to be three important points for the Democrats to remember.
First, Palin is not at the top of the ticket. It is impossible to imagine her surviving a primary campaign. She would never have withstood the searching inquiries of months of campaigning. But no one seems disposed to contemplate her heroic lack of qualifications to sit a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Second, it is McCain whom the Democrats should attack. He would be president, not the Alaskan. It is McCain’s views on the economy and foreign policy, not Palin’s on Darwin and the wickedness of sex education, which should be the targets.
The economy is not McCain’s strong suit. He was arguing as Wall Street went into meltdown that the American economy’s fundamentals were still strong. McCain’s solution seems to be more of Bush’s policies – tax cuts for the rich plus promises to curb public spending. How credible is that?
The Republicans under Bush have turned huge surpluses into terrifyingly large deficits. The mortgage crisis and the credit crunch have led to bailouts for the banks and the nationalization of housing finance and insurance. America needs to rein in its household and fiscal spending, so that it can cut the amount of money that it borrows and owes.
It is not easy to do this when the rich get richer – enjoying their biggest spree since the Roaring Twenties – and average household income remains stagnant for the third decade running. Social equity is not irrelevant even in America, the land of opportunity.
When they get into the polling booth in November, will Americans vote on “culture wars” issues – sex and guns – or on the basis of whether they can afford to pay their mortgages?
As for foreign policy, it is Obama who has rightly said that America needs to switch the focus of its military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan. His opponent originally derided what has rapidly become the conventional wisdom. Al-Qaeda still has bases with the Taliban on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A serious effort to contain them and stamp them out requires an effective campaign in Helmand Province, North and South Waziristan, and the troubled areas between the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the madrasas of Pakistan.
Finally, if America wants change, why vote for a ticket that has embraced the very attitudes that gave the Bush years their character, and exemplifies some of the reasons for its unpopularity and failures, from partisan bigotry and the assault on reason and science to the “America First” dismissal of the opinions of the rest of mankind?
If I were a Democrat, I would leave Palin to the mercies of the investigating bloggers. The election is too important to all of us to begin and end with her. I would get back to the central issues. That is where the election will be lost or won.
(Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.)
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times