The Palin Fear Factor

Some voters are scared of the prospect of a black president. Can Obama convince them that they really should be petrified of a Palin vice presidency?

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
In times of economic crisis, voters become risk averse. This doesn't mean that they won't vote for political change, especially if it means a change in the policies that caused the financial mess in the first place. But when the future seems uncertain and frightening, above all voters want a candidate who makes them feel safe. Such a theory would seem to favor the avuncular John McCain over the inspirational Barack Obama—the old, white, conservative man with the military bearing, over the brash young newcomer who, as Obama himself has said, "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

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These days, however, it isn't Obama who's looking like the risky choice in November's election. McCain's erratic behavior and high-profile stunts alone are spooking some voters, and making the unflappable Obama seem all the more solid in comparison. But the scariest thing about McCain is the person on the other half of his ticket.

On Monday, Sarah Palin was whisked away to McCain's Sedona, Arizona, estate with his top campaign advisors where, as The Nation's Katha Pollitt described it, "She's prepping for her debate with Joe Biden like a student jock cramming for a test." The McCain campaign has also negotiated a less-challenging debate format, with shorter answer periods and little time for follow-up or free exchange between the candidates. But none of this is likely to obscure the increasingly glaring truth about Palin.

In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last Wednesday, only 40 percent of Americans said they believed Palin was qualified to be vice president, while 49 percent said she was not qualified. In comparison, 64 percent said that Joe Biden was qualified, and just 21 percent said he was not. An earlier Associated Press/Yahoo News poll found that 61 percent did not think Palin had the right experience to be president. Those polls were done before the Dow dropped 700-plus points in a single day—and before the airing of Palin's disastrous interview with Katie Couric last week, where Americans saw just who it was they could be placing on the threshold of the oval office.

After running an excerpt from that interview, in which Palin answered Couric's question about the economic bailout package with a rambling and incoherent response, CNN's Jack Cafferty commented: "If John McCain wins, this woman will be one 72-year-old's heartbeat away from being president of the United States. And if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, it should… I'm 65 and have been covering politics...for a long time. That is one of the most pathetic pieces of tape I have ever seen for someone aspiring to one of the highest offices in this country." (A commenter on Cafferty's blog wrote that he felt "sorry and embarrassed for Sarah" because "McCain has sucked her into an 'opportunity' akin to a sub-prime mortgage situation on a house she cannot afford.")

The Cafferty piece has joined an assortment of eyebrow-raising Palin videos that are making the rounds on YouTube. Others include various scenes from Palin's former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God Church: Palin praying for a natural gas pipeline and a pastor at her church asking God to finance her campaign for governor and protect her from witchcraft.

A notable addition comes from the pre-show green room conversation among several guests on Sunday's This Week with George Stephanopoulos . Asked what he thought of Palin's interview with Couric, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—a longtime admirer of the Alaska governor—replied, "They shouldn't have scheduled it" while she was still in "training." The conversation continued:

Robert Reich: "When is she ready for prime time?"
George Will: "When is she ready to be president, that's the question."
Gingrich: "If you want to ask me which gamble do I prefer—I prefer the gamble of Palin to the gamble of either Obama or Biden..."
Will: "Life is full of gambles that are unavoidable. This surely was an avoidable gamble."

George Will is no fan either of Palin or of McCain, who he accused accused last week of "behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high" under the pressure of the financial crisis. But he is just one of a growing number of conservative commentators who have joined the mainstream press in questioning Palin's qualifications, including Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, and David Frum, who recently commented that Palin had "pretty thoroughly—and probably irretrievably—proven that she is not up to the job of being president." Frum added, "this is a moment of real high anxiety, a little bit like 9/11, when people look to Washington for comfort and leadership and want to know that people in charge know what they are doing."

Apparently, members of the McCain campaign team might be feeling the same way. Palin is being kept away from the press while she undergoes her pre-debate tutorial. And while Biden made the rounds on the networks last Friday doing Obama's post-debate spin, Palin remained sequestered in Pennsylvania with a small gathering of debate-viewers and a "limited group of reporters." The spin for McCain was instead done by Rudy Giuliani.

The Obama campaign seems to have picked up on the growing anxiety about the Republican ticket. Campaigning in Colorado on Monday, Obama explicitly introduced the theme into his fear and mistrust that some white voters harbor for African American candidates. This kind of fear has produced racially polarized voting in this country since Reconstruction, and it is a factor in the so-called Bradley Effect, in which white voters express their intention to vote for a black candidate, but get cold feet in the voting booth (as they did in the 1982 California gubernatorial race, defying polls that had predicted a win for African American candidate Tom Bradley).

The fact that McCain is a loose cannon and Palin is an empty shell may not have much effect on hard-core racists or Christian fundamentalists. But it just might tip the scales for some Independents and for white working-class Clinton voters in swing states, who displayed mistrust of Obama through the primary races. If this is Obama's strategy, he would do well to continue in the reserved, statesmanlike mode that has some supporters yearning for his earlier soaring rhetoric. If the economy continues to implode, the Democratic candidate will need to project some of the gravitas that FDR showed in 1932, convincing American voters that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself—and Sarah Palin.

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