Monday, September 8, 2008

Core aeration

The intense battle today on whether John McCain and Sarah Palin are "mavericks" is one that Barack Obama must win or he will lose the election. And I don't see how he can.

McCain's pick of Palin had many winning strategic dimensions. Commentators are focusing heavily on social issues. The "x" factor, however is reform. The public already believes McCain is a reformer, capable of bucking his own party. Palin has that same reputation. Because Obama and Joe Biden have no such reputations, the strategic edge is great. And few things move voters more strongly than the notion that a politician will do the right thing against the grain of partisanship.

That's why McCain's ad touting the ticket's maverick status was answered quickly by the Obama team and why Obama personally challenged Palin today despite the obvious disadvantage of a #1 ticket member going after the other party's #2.

Team Obama might be able to nick and bruise the McCain-Palin argument, but it will cost a lot of money and effort and it will suffer a backlash that will be a net negative. That's because McCain has been a reformer and the public knows it and believes it. Palin, even though less known, has spectacularly gone against her party in much the same way U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald did in Illinois. Because that behavior is so rare, it sears in voters' minds and is career-defining. Obama can say Palin favored the Bridge to Nowhere at one time, but the fact is that she stopped the project. Here's what Newsweek said last year.

In Alaska, Palin is challenging the dominant, sometimes corrupting, role of oil companies in the state's political culture. "The public has put a lot of faith in us," says Palin during a meeting with lawmakers in her downtown Anchorage office, where—as if to drive the point home—the giant letters on the side of the ConocoPhillips skyscraper fill an entire wall of windows. "They're saying, 'Here's your shot, clean it up'." For Palin, that has meant tackling the cozy relationship between the state's political elite and the energy industry that provides 85 percent of Alaska's tax revenues—and distancing herself from fellow Republicans, including the state's senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens, whose home was recently searched by FBI agents looking for evidence in an ongoing corruption investigation. (Stevens has denied any wrongdoing.)


In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Palin said it's time for Alaska to "grow up" and end its reliance on pork-barrel spending. Shortly after taking office, Palin canceled funding for the "Bridge to Nowhere," a $330 million project that Stevens helped champion in Congress. The bridge, which would have linked the town of Ketchikan to an island airport, had come to symbolize Alaska's dependence on federal handouts. Rather than relying on such largesse, says Palin, she wants to prove Alaska can pay its own way, developing its huge energy wealth in ways that are "politically and environmentally clean."

She did run against and defeat the incumbent governor of her own party. She did blow the whistle on Republicans who were misusing their offices. That's one of the reasons why she is the most popular governor in America with approval ratings that have frequently topped 80 percent. And the flip-flop label won't stick either because that suggests phoniness and Palin appears the opposite of a phony. In Alaska, I don't imagine a phony would last long in politics.

Obama is rhetorically defenseless on this point and he knows it. It underscores one of the biggest blunders of his political career—completely acquiescing to rampant corruption around him in Chicago and Illinois in an attempt to curry favor with power brokers and bosses. A couple of sharp words and strategic actions on corruption during his earlier career probably would have cemented his election as president this fall.

McCain's brilliant selection of Palin has created the reform battefield that is so deadly to his opponent. His earlier bold support for the surge in Iraq has undercut Obama's other change argument. Two bold moves and McCain has shaped the next two months to his strong advantage, even in an otherwise negative environment for Republicans. Those maneuvers alone should give us confidence in McCain's ability to lead the country.

He is starting to gut Obama's core argument to be president and there's not much "The One" can do about it.

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