By putting the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, on his presidential ticket, John McCain has demonstrated that rarest of all political qualities: willingness to take a real risk on a serious new venture with great potential. It’s a sign of confidence, not desperation.

If the response from the conservative base is any indication, McCain has hit a home run with the Palin selection. A sullen GOP, set to vote reluctantly, if at all, for the “maverick” (some say unprincipled) senator from Arizona, has suddenly become electrified. In the first 36 hours after McCain announced his pick, $7 million in new contributions poured in online. This isn’t because Palin is making history as the first woman on a GOP ticket. It’s because of the type of woman and politician that she is. She’s a normal person, a mother and wife, who entered politics in 1992 by running for city council in Wasilla, Alaska to oppose tax hikes. She became mayor and swept a bunch of cronies out of the bureaucracy. She ran for, and lost, a race for lieutenant governor. She served on the state’s Oil and Gas Commission, where she went after the corrupt state GOP chairman, who had taken money from oil companies. In 2006, she ran for governor and won, after first beating the Republican incumbent for the nomination.

Throughout, she hewed to a few clear principles. She championed fiscal responsibility, cutting pork in the form of capital projects as well as larger symbols of waste, such as the infamous “bridge to nowhere” sponsored by Republican senator Ted Stevens. In a state that has been awash in oil money and political corruption, she also demanded real ethical standards and sent people who didn’t meet them to jail, never hesitating to challenge Republicans who were corrupt or ineffective. And she was pro-development, supporting drilling in ANWR; for that matter, she has dealt extensively with the tricky energy issues that have become central to this year’s election, and she understands them better than anyone else on either ticket.

In summary, Palin worked her way up the political ladder, rising on talent (she’s likable and a good speaker) and incremental achievement. She didn’t marry into power, and no one handed her anything. This is what conservatives say they want in female and minority candidates for high office. Further, she’s a reformer and a Washington outsider in a year when, as Republicans know, their own party is part of the problem. She represents real “change,” to adopt a word of the moment, and for Reaganites who have been waiting for the first post-Reagan conservative generation to rise to power, Palin represents “hope” as well.

Now about that woman thing: some commentators object that Palin was chosen primarily as a sop to female voters, especially disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. Well, of course the McCain campaign wants to entice those women to vote for the Republican ticket. Putting together coalitions is how elections are won. Women happen to be 52 percent of the electorate. Ignoring them, let alone insulting them as Barack Obama is perceived to have done, is politically foolish. Some worried that McCain would pick a token woman, such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas—she of the long Washington tenure, liberal Republican views, and few accomplishments (though she does look the part). Instead, he surprised many by picking Palin.

Is it irresponsible to put a half-term governor in the vice presidential slot? It depends on her record. But surely for a Washington novice, the vice presidency is more appropriate than the presidency. A half-term governor has more claim to leadership and experience than does a one-third-term U.S. senator who has risen through a big-city political machine. Palin is a woman of action, moreover, who has used her political capital at every stage to fight corruption and bad policy. It’s hard to find anyone in politics who does that; pols “save” their capital instead, as Obama has done by voting “present” on numerous occasions, lest spending it cost them something somewhere down the road. Her personal profile—raising five children, hunting, fishing, and being a real NRA member—make an appealing contrast with the overly cerebral, political calculations of those who merely hold positions and whose lives have been led in the service of their résumés.

Add to all this that Palin was a brilliant choice compared with everyone else McCain was considering. Mitt Romney, who has much impressive experience, was another rich white guy, and he bombed in the primaries. Joe Lieberman is a liberal Democrat who is sound on Iraq but on little else, from a Republican perspective. Tom Ridge is terminally boring and didn’t really succeed at the Department of Homeland Security. True, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is another young Reaganite conservative who should have a big future, with impressive “Sam’s Club” working-class credibility, but he lacks dazzle. Making the ticket attractive enough to pique interest is a reasonable political choice, considering that McCain can’t govern if he doesn’t get elected first.

On the Democratic side, Palin’s counterpart Joe Biden has a hard-core liberal voting record in 36 years in the Senate, during which he has helped radicalize the judiciary. True, he knows more than Palin does about foreign policy; but much of what Biden knows is wrong—he argued, for instance, that Iraq should be partitioned. As for his sounder impulses to send more troops to Iraq and to resist the temptation to withdraw prematurely, it’s important to note that the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, Obama, disagreed with both.

No vice-presidential pick is ever perfect. Presidential candidates perforce make tradeoffs among competing considerations of appeal to key constituencies, particular expertise, ability to muster electoral votes, and compensation for perceived weaknesses at the top. But Sarah Palin brings real reform credentials, authentic Reaganite conservatism, small-government values, and the pragmatic ethos of a middle-class mother of five. And she is a natural talent. It couldn’t get much better than that—not even if she were a man.


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