Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"A Risk Neither Candidate Seemed Willing to Take"

Reader Advisory: I have reposted this here because of software issues on another website.

John Harwood (The Caucus--NY Times political blog):

ST. PAUL — Up against the popularity of Senator Barack Obama and the unpopularity of President Bush, Senator John McCain faced pressure to roll the dice with his choice of a running mate. The political world should not have been so surprised, then, that he tapped Sarah Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska.
Yet more than just Mr. McCain’s need to gamble, Ms. Palin’s selection showed which kinds of risks 21st century political strategists deem acceptable, and which they do not.

In particular, it showed that the divide on abortion is so deep that even a candidate trying to reinforce his maverick image dare not cross it.

And so Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which came nearly two months before Mr. McCain’s release from a North Vietnamese prison camp on March 14, 1973, set him on a path into politics, continues to bind Democrats and Republicans and keep the parties in separate spheres.

Against the Odds

Tagged with an unpopular war, a weak economy and a widely disparaged incumbent, the Republican Party has not felt more beleaguered than at any time since Watergate. That is the daunting environment that Mr. McCain faces as he claims the party’s nomination this week.

On Election Day 2004, exit polls showed there were as many voters claiming allegiance to the Republican Party as there were self-identified Democrats. Nearly four years later, surveys show Democrats with an edge of nearly 10 percentage points in party self-identification.

To win under those circumstances, McCain strategists calculate that he must draw roughly 55 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats, besting the 48 percent and 11 percent that Mr. Bush drew four years ago. If Mr. Obama’s mobilization drive succeeds in enlarging the Democratic electorate, Mr. McCain’s hill would grow even steeper.

One high-risk response for Mr. McCain would have been to select Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, above, as his running mate. As a former congressman, governor and Homeland Security secretary, Mr. Ridge would have met anyone’s definition of readiness to step in as president. He could have improved Mr. McCain’s odds of snatching Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes, disrupting Mr. Obama’s electoral math.

Because he favors abortion rights, Mr. Ridge also could have enhanced the party’s appeal to affluent suburbanites with moderate social views. But for the same reason, choosing him would have risked eroding the support of the religious right, as well as the ticket’s appeal to culturally conservative blue-collar swing voters.

Ms. Palin presented a different set of calculations. As a young, charismatic politician with a reformer’s image, she could add spark and the stamp of history to the campaign of Mr. McCain, 72, who trails Mr. Obama by more than 10 percentage points among women. As a social conservative who is staunchly anti-abortion, she could energize the party’s base.

But Ms. Palin brought one huge risk: that voters would judge her two years in statewide elected office inadequate to meet the presidential readiness test that every nominee invokes as a paramount consideration. And that could undercut Mr. McCain’s argument that Mr. Obama is not “ready to lead.”

Both choices offered the opportunity to reinforce Mr. McCain’s image as a free-wheeling maverick. But in the calculus of contemporary Republican politics, the dangers associated with Mr. Ridge appeared greater.

A History Lesson

Mr. Obama faced a similar cost-benefit calculation in his running mate deliberations. He has campaigned as a post-partisan leader eager to bridge the nation’s deepest differences, and to underscore that credential some Democrats urged him to choose Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, below.

Mr. Hagel’s sharp criticism of the Iraq war lent plausibility to the idea. But Mr. Hagel’s solid anti-abortion voting record drew strong opposition from the party’s liberal base; he didn’t make Mr. Obama’s short list.

The values divide on the issue has proved inviolable since 1980. Seven years after Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party platform backed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, and the elder George Bush, placed on the ticket by Ronald Reagan, reversed his previous support for abortion rights.

Since then, Republicans have not nominated a candidate who favors abortion rights; Democrats have not nominated one who opposes them.

The 2004 exit polls show why: Three-fourths of those who said abortion should be legal voted for John Kerry, while three-fourths of those who said abortion should be outlawed voted for President Bush. Neither 2008 candidate was willing to challenge that pattern.
Howie P.S.: H/t to Ari Melber who draws heavily on Harwood in his article, "Everything You Need to Understand Palin: BOA."

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