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Sunday 31 August 2008

McCain wrong-footed Obama with his choice of running mate 

WHEN I heard John McCain had chosen as his running mate the huntin', shootin' and fishin' 44-year-old mother-of-five Sarah Palin, reforming Governor of Alaska, I laughed and laughed and laughed. Being closer in age to McCain than to Barack Obama, I love the fact that time and time again the ol' boy has completely wrong-footed the young pretender. This time he outdid himself, driving Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Denver off the front pages.

Once the dust settled on the Democratic struggle for the nomination, and Hillary lay flattened under Obama's chariot wheels, the vast majority of the punditry were clear McCain hadn't a chance. Up against a rival of brilliance, oratorical near-genius, rockstar status and overwhelming appeal to the young, what did the old inarticulate guy have to offer except to keep bleating about experience, which bored the punditry. Obama offered excitement, change, hope, vision, aspiration and the chant, 'Yes we can'. Indeed, his inexperience seemed a plus; having been a US senator for only a few years, he was untainted by the cynical world of the Washington insider.

But the McCain camp scrutinised Obama and spotted weaknesses. He isn't just vain, which considering his extraordinary gifts is understandable: he's narcissistic and, increasingly, messianic. His inexperience is so startling that it suggests amazing arrogance even to consider running for the presidency. And hardly anyone seems really to know him.

Having found himself the underdog, McCain felt free to take risks and mock the front-runner with the material he so readily provided. In June Obama unveiled a campaign logo which resembled the presidential seal. It included the same bald eagle clutching in its talons an olive branch and arrows. In place of a shield covering the eagle's body, the Obama version had his trademark 'O'; in place of the legend 'Seal of the President of the United States', round the circumference was 'Obama for America' and 'www.barackobama.com'; and while the presidential eagle flies in its beak a banner with 'E pluribus unum' (out of many, one), Obama's reads 'Vero possumus' (yes we can).

Obama's visit to Europe and the huge open-air rally in Berlin designed to show his statesmanlike qualities made many Americans squirm and gave the McCain campaign the inspiration for the first of their satirical internet ads: 'The One' (easily found on youtube.com). It begins with a sonorous voice: "It shall be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him 'The One'." Obama is shown saying: "A nation healed. A world repaired. We're the ones we've been waiting for."

"He has," says the narrator, "anointed himself ready to carry the burden of 'The One'." To quote Barack: "I have become a symbol of America returning to our best traditions." And, after showing him in Berlin announcing, "This was the moment when the rise of the ocean began to slow and our planet began to heal," the ad cuts to Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. "He may be 'The One'," says the narrator. "But is he ready to lead?" Obama didn't react well. The guy doesn't like being laughed at. Nor have his team found a way of making fun of McCain, since McCain has preempted the Democrats with jokes about himself.

The internet is alive with videos, jokes and cartoons with variations on 'The One'. (A recent one is Obama in a toga, holding a seal with the legend: 'Obama for Emperor Because America Just Sucks'). Meanwhile, the McCain team focus on their 'Not Ready 08' campaign. Obama responded last week in Denver with a speech with some policy content. It was magnificently delivered, of course, but it was perhaps not wise to have a backdrop of Roman pillars, and Obama's promises of extravagant social and educational spending along with tax cuts for 95 per cent of the population suggested he's in economic la-la land.

Obama could have chosen a successful state governor as running mate. If he'd gone for the hotly-tipped 60-year-old Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, who has credibility, gravitas and shares Obama's social liberalism, she could have won over the millions of disaffected PUMA ('Party Unity My Ass') Hillary loyalists. Instead, he unveiled Joe Biden, a six-time senator who's a bit of a buffoon and a longtime popular fixture on the Washington media and political circuit that Obama the reformer cricises so savagely.

There's an argument that, as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he balances Obama's inexperience. But why should Obama, whose unique selling point over Hillary was that he voted against the Iraq war, choose Biden, who voted for it?

Having goaded the Obama campaign all week with mischievous internet attack advertisements, on Friday McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running-mate. The first panic-stricken response from the Obama campaign was to mock her for her inexperience: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency. Governor Palin shares John McCain's commitment to overturning Roe v Wade, the agenda of Big Oil and continuing George Bush's failed economic policies -- that's not the change we need, it's just more of the same."

Half-an-hour later, Obama and Biden (who have never run anything) changed the tune: "We send our congratulations to Governor Palin and her family on her designation as the Republican nominee for vice president. Her selection is yet another encouraging sign that all barriers are falling in our politics and while we obviously have differences over how to best lead this country forward, Governor Palin is an admirable person and will add a compelling new voice to this campaign."

There will be much debate over the next few weeks about the inexperience of the potential Democratic President and Republican Vice-President. Sarah Palin, who has been governor for a short time but -- like McCain -- is a maverick and a root-and-branch reformer, will be a great addition to the extraordinary drama that is the American presidential election. So may be Hurricane Gustav, threatening America from Texas to Florida on Monday, the first day of the Republican Convention. Now there's an interesting challenge for McCain.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards