A radio talk-show host thought she was putting me on the spot. "As a woman, are you torn?" she asked. "No, this is easy for me," I replied. "I'm with the polar bears." Anyone who saw Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," will remember the image of the polar bear swimming miles in search of diminishing ice floes in the Arctic. Gov. Sarah Palin is suing the Bush administration on behalf of the state of Alaska to overturn the decision to add polar bears to the endangered-species list.
The Bushies are hardly radical environmentalists. It's Palin who is on the far right of the ideological axis that governs so much of our political debate. At the same time, she is a political natural, skewering the opposition with a down-home smile. Amidst the electricity she generated in St. Paul, it seems churlish to raise such pesky issues as her belief that global warming is not man-made and her opposition to abortion without exception for rape and incest. The Obama campaign better hurry up and draw the contrast before America falls in love with the hockey mom.
As someone who has written extensively about women in politics, I'm glad the Republican Party picked a woman. It gives John McCain the second look he might not have gotten, and I'll bet Barack Obama can now better understand how Hillary Clinton felt during the primaries. After Democrats congratulated themselves for supporting a black man as their nominee, Palin came from nowhere to crash the party. Her candidacy is pitched to our celebrity culture, and before the week was out, there she was on the cover of People, Us, OK and the National Enquirer.
Palin has a compelling life story, but she is in no sense ready to assume the presidency. Karl Rove admitted as much this week when he said putting Palin on the ticket is a political choice, not a governing choice. The fascination with all the elements of her story—special-needs baby, pregnant teenage daughter, snowmobiling husband—don't change the fact that she is the most thinly credentialed vice presidential contender since Dan (potato with an "e") Quayle, who was put on the ticket in '88 because the old guard thought a good-looking second-term senator could attract young voters.
First impressions count, and Quayle never recovered from the deer-in-the-headlights look he displayed in his first encounter with the national press over his draft records. Palin is no Quayle. She is much harder-edged and ideological, more like Marilyn Quayle whose speech at the 1992 Republican convention denouncing feminism and extolling traditional motherhood helped lose the race for the GOP. Feminists helped pave the way for women to work outside the home—as Governor Palin does. With economic pressures making it essential for most women to work, the debate quieted.
That's a debate the McCain campaign would love to have, but it's not one that the Democrats are inciting. After championing the right of women to make the widest possible career and family choices, Democrats aren't about to cede that mantle to the party that was against modern values before they were for them. Women of all political stripes are talking among themselves about the challenges Palin faces, and what they would do if they were in her shoes, but it's not a partisan debate. It's individual, and it's personal, and it has to do with knowing how hard the juggling act is wherever you are on the ideological scale. It's comical to watch the male commentators on television huffing and puffing over the double standard applied to women, as if they've discovered something new.
The choice of Palin fired up the Republican base, and McCain is gambling that she will by the sheer force of her personality win over working-class voters in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. McCain wanted a transformative pick, and when Rove among others convinced him the delegates would walk out of the convention if he put his top choice, independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, on the ticket, he took Palin. The decision jolted the race, making it harder for Obama to characterize McCain as more of the same, and reclaiming the reform issue for the Republicans. But it is also high-risk with the prospect of more distracting revelations and a candidate who faces a steep learning curve. "It may work, but it's not any more genius than betting the rent money on a lottery ticket," says Samuel Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and author of "The Reasoning Voter." Judging by the enthusiasm coming out of St. Paul, the Palin pick gave McCain better odds than he had any reason to expect, given his party's performance over the last eight years.