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Great Speech, Big Questions, and a Curve Ball from McCain

by Dave Lindorff
Fri, 08/29/2008
The one big plus for Democrats in the Palin nomination is that it completely undermines McCain’s biggest campaign theme to date: that Obama is too young and inexperienced to serve as president.

Sen. Barack Obama scored big in the Invesco Stadium last night with an acceptance speech that managed to do everything that the political operatives, pundits and critics had argued he’d have to do: It was at once impassioned, full of actual policy plans, and aggressive in its attack on John McCain, his Republican opponent for the presidency.

But the speech also raises some important questions. Biggest among these was Obama’s continued insistence that he will expand the military and, instead of bringing the troops home from Iraq, will shift at least some of them to Afghanistan where he’s calling for an escalation of a war that seems doomed to failure. The expansion of the military that he is proposing, furthermore, would be unrelated to the Afghanistan conflict, and is of a more long-term nature, suggesting that Obama is envisioning even more future conflicts.

That in itself is disheartening and represents a failure of vision, but it also begs the question of how he can hope to achieve any of his major domestic goals, if he is intent upon increasing the already $600-billion Pentagon budget further. The reality is that he cannot. Until Obama and Democrats acknowledge that the US cannot continue to be the new Rome, with 800 bases scattered around the globe, and with a foreign policy that is based on gunboat diplomacy, any high-minded talk about national health care, universal college education or even pre-K education, or a crash program to combat climate change is simply hot air and wishful thinking.

Perhaps most Democrats and progressives will be willing to ignore this internal contradiction and failure of vision on the part of the Democratic candidate, and will enthusiastically support his campaign. Perhaps many independents too will not dig too hard into the numbers and will go for the softer part of his message—that the country has been misled and divided for eight years and that we need to come together, and that America is “better than” the America of George Bush and John McCain.

But now McCain has tossed a monkey wrench into the Obama campaign strategy, with his selection of Sarah Palin, the new governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Palin, unlike McCain, is a genuine maverick—a woman who defied her party, running in the Republican primary against a seated Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, and defeating him, and then going on to win the governorship handily, a woman who personally turned in her own party chairman and her own party’s attorney general on ethics violations, forcing both to resign, and who has gone on to make a reputation as a corruption fighter, mostly against members of her own party’s entrenched political establishment. Palin will be appealing to many women and men who backed Hillary Clinton and who remain bitter about her defeat. Married to a native Eskimo, and with four mixed-race children, she can expect to appeal to many non-white American voters, on whose support the Obama campaign is counting.

Her candidacy, a bold stroke by McCain, will also pose tactical problems for Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden. If she plays the traditional vice presidential candidate role of attack dog, Obama as a man, and especially Biden, as a gray-haired older white guy, will have to be careful about how they counter-attack. There is a strong sense across the country that it is unseemly for men to attack women, at least in the same manner that they might attack another man. Some women who otherwise might back Obama, could rise to Palin’s defense if attacks on her are perceived as sexist or bullying.

The Obama/Biden campaign has avenues of attack available to it. Palin is an ardent anti-abortionist and a fundamentalist Christian who opposes gay marriage. She is also weak on the environment, backing more drilling in the Arctic Refuge in a state where the evidence of the terrifying impact of climate change and the continued reliance upon oil is already everywhere, in the form of drowning polar bears, drunken forests, receding glaciers and sinking villages being swallowed up by melting tundra.

Still, Palin has demonstrated that she’s a gold-star campaigner, handily winning over a majority of the voters of a very libertarian-minded and macho state despite her anti-abortion stance.

The one big plus for Democrats in the Palin nomination is that it completely undermines McCain’s biggest campaign theme to date: that Obama is too young and inexperienced to serve as president. Given that McCain is turning 72 today, and that he is entering an age bracket, even before assuming office, that actuarially puts him at risk of death, particularly given his poor health record to start with (two bouts of melanoma included), it has been repeatedly argued that voters will pay close attention to whether his vice presidential pick would be ready to take over in the event of his dying or having to leave office mid-term. If McCain is saying that Palin, whose resume is even thinner than Obama’s, and who is even younger than Obama, meets that standard, he cannot with a straight face, argue that his rival does not.

Lindorff speakingAbout the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at

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This story was published on August 29, 2008.