Barack Obama’s speech accepting his party’s nomination for president before eighty thousand adoring Democrats in Denver’s Mile High Stadium was one of the more accomplished political performances in recent memory. Coming as it did on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s epoch-making “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, Obama’s ascendency is as astonishing as it is inspiring, especially for those who remember how African Americans were once routinely denied the ballot.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Republican presidential candidate John McCain made a bold move to blunt whatever momentum Obama hoped to take out of Denver by naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin, a forty-four-year-old mother of five and a first-term governor, is the first woman nominated by the Republican Party to run on a national ticket. McCain’s selection of Palin was widely described as risky. Before being elected governor, Palin served as mayor of a small suburb of Anchorage. She earned the admiration of many for her stand against corruption within her own party, and for her staunchly conservative social views. An Evangelical Christian, Palin would outlaw abortion, opposes gay marriage, and supports the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, positions that should energize the GOP’s religious base, a group that has long been suspicious of McCain. Alaska, however, is a sparsely populated state whose insular politics and economy (heavily subsidized by Washington and taxes on the petroleum industry) bear little resemblance to the rest of the nation. Palin has no foreign-policy or national-political experience. Voters may balk at the idea of this appealingly fresh face becoming president should anything happen to McCain, who would be the oldest person ever elected to a first term as president.

Palin immediately made a pitch to disaffected Hillary Clinton voters, lauding Clinton and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and linking their groundbreaking candidacies with hers. It seems unlikely that many Hillary Clinton Democrats, especially her more strongly feminist supporters, will be wooed by Palin’s traditional social views and antiabortion politics. What is more likely is that the McCain campaign hopes Palin will appeal to the churchgoing voters who were the decisive factor in winning Ohio and re-electing George W. Bush in 2004. It could hardly have been a coincidence that McCain announced his selection of Palin at a rally in Dayton. The Obama campaign is aware of this electoral dynamic. Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, were already on a bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio following the convention.

Palin’s presence on the ticket seems likely to intensify the identity politics of the campaign, something Obama has tried, often eloquently, to move the country beyond. (His refusal to discuss the pregnancy of Palin’s unmarried teenaged daughter is evidence he is also trying to move the country beyond the politics of personal attack.) If their party platform is any indication, Democrats may think that the unpopular war in Iraq and a perilous economy will trump more divisive social issues such as abortion. Although Obama has spoken of the need for compromise on abortion, the party platform seemed to move in the opposite direction, eliminating even the rather tame language in previous platforms for making abortion “rare.” If Obama loses Ohio, the Democrats will once again come to rue the stranglehold that abortion-rights groups have on the party.

Still, abortion is only one of the important issues voters must weigh when choosing between Obama and McCain. In his acceptance speech, Obama countered attacks on his lack of experience by shrewdly questioning McCain’s “temperament and judgment” to be commander-in-chief. McCain’s hurried selection of Palin, whose ability to assume the duties of the presidency is questionable, raises more questions about McCain’s judgment. If Obama can rightly be accused of promising too much and compromising too readily, it seems fair to say that McCain often appears impetuous and unreflective. His futile demand for “victory” in Iraq, jokes about bombing Iran, and call to expel Russia from the G-8 all point to a headstrong foreign policy that, as Obama suggests, is likely to be a continuation of the Bush administration’s belligerent unilateralism. McCain has challenged his own party and reached across the aisle in the past, but his vague economic proposals, regressive tax policies, and libertarian approach to health care do not appear to be well thought out.

We will learn more about the temperament and judgment of both candidates in the upcoming debates. The nation remains deeply divided politically, and the election promises to be close. Much will be riding on the outcome, not just for Americans, but for people across the globe.

September 2, 2008

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Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: View Contents
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