McCain’s New Palin

McCain’s decision prompts one important question: Huh?

See Slate’s complete Republican National Convention coverage.

John McCain and Sarah Palin

Initial reactions to vice-presidential picks generally come in two forms: “Smart!” and “Huh?” Al Gore: Smart. Joe Biden: Smart. Dick Cheney: Smart (or seemed so at the time). Jack Kemp and, perhaps quintessentially, Dan Quayle: Huh?

John McCain has picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Huh?

Palin may turn out to be a smart choice—buzz-generating and bolstering McCain’s claim to change—but the first hurdle is getting over the fact that she’s not very well-known. This opens up the possibility for distracting and potentially damning mischief as her biography is filled out. The one thing people do know about her is her gender. On my early-morning flight from Denver to Minneapolis, as the news appeared on BlackBerrys before takeoff, passengers shared the news this way: “McCain picked a woman.” Several months ago, when my colleagues and I tried to reverse-engineer a female vice-presidential pick for McCain—someone who would have executive credentials and be pro-life—Palin was the only obvious choice among politicians.

Palin is famously pro-life and will only solidify McCain’s hold on his base. But Palin also helps McCain make a run at those moderate voters for whom McCain’s conservatism (and particularly his pro-life views) is not a deal breaker. As one McCain aide put it: “We either get Hillary’s voters and we win, or we don’t. It’s not a mystery.” Said another: “This campaign is all about the middle.” The presence of Palin on the ticket also gives the GOP a claim on the historic nature of this election: Barriers will be broken no matter who wins. “You want change,” says a McCain aide. “Here we come.”

McCain aides are emphasizing other ways in which Palin is a good fit for McCain. “She’s a perfect reform partner,” says a top McCain aide. “She fought corruption and business as usual, stood up to big oil. She’s an executive, smart, tough, principled, and very decent.” McCain delivered the news to Palin on Thursday morning at his Sedona house, where she had spent the night with the candidate and his wife, Cindy. McCain, after a short morning walk down the stream on the property, returned to offer her the job.

In the coming days, we’ll test whether any of those descriptions fit and whether they can help overcome Palin’s one gaping liability. By McCain’s own standard, she flunks the experience test. It’s not that she doesn’t have interesting experiences—she’s a bio writer’s dream. She was a sportscaster and a fisherwoman, doesn’t mind smelling like salmon occasionally, was once runner-up in the Miss Alaska competition, and her husband is a champion snowmobiler. For all I know, she may also throw knives.

But Palin is 44 and has been governor for less than two years. She has no foreign-policy experience. For a candidate who turns 72 today, the heartbeat-away question carries weight. It also seems to undercut a key line of attack against Obama. If Sara Palin is ready to be commander in chief, then so is Barack Obama.

For any longtime McCain watchers, the fact that they kept this surprise pick a surprise is a marvel. His team was once known for its leak-prone ways, but it is now more disciplined—as is the candidate. Thursday, the night before Palin would be announced in Dayton, McCain’s two top aides, Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter, stayed with her in a cheap, out-of-the way hotel to avoid detection.

John McCain used to be an undisciplined politician. Now he speaks less often to the press, stays on message, and runs fact-free ads that once might have bothered him. That he picked a woman he doesn’t know well and who has little experience suggests he continues to progress as a pragmatic political realist. Sarah Palin isn’t the only one on the Republican ticket we’re learning new things about.