When John McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate at the start of the Labor Day weekend, analysts immediately labeled the move as a cynical ploy to woo Hillary Clinton’s female voters, who still felt jilted by the Democratic Party’s selection of Barack Obama as their nominee.
But only a political insider would see the world so narrowly. It’s men, not women, that Obama should be worried about losing.
Like others, I do not see Kim Gandy and the National Organization for Women stumbling over themselves to put a woman in the White House as they did earlier this year. It’s the married men, who felt abandoned by the Republican Party on its march towards theocracy whose votes are put back in play with the selection of Sarah Palin.
Within twenty four hours of the Palin pick, one of my best friends declared his excitement for the McCain campaign. He made this announcement as I was driving him home from the airport – he had been in Denver all week at the Democratic National Convention. My father and my brother voted for Obama in the Texas Primary, but on the heels of the Palin nomination, my father wanted to know how he could donate to McCain’s campaign and let them know that it was all about her.
So what gives? I’ve had trouble explaining this transformation to others because most people see politics as linear. Obama, on the far left of American politics, is about as far away from the anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-tax cut Palin as you can get. Even my two-dimensional, circular theory of politics – that Big Government Liberals and Big Government Conservatives aren’t so far apart – fails to explain how one woman could cause such a tectonic shift in people’s political persuasions.
Sarah Palin’s greatest asset is not the fact that she has more executive experience than Barack Obama and Joe Biden – combined. Her track record of fighting corruption and reforming government may not boost her running mate’s chances. Nor will, Sarah Palin win over many voters because she lowered property taxes in Wasilla by sixty percent when she was Mayor.
No, Sarah Palin brings a new aesthetic to the once pallid McCain for President Campaign. The effect that Palin, a former Miss Wasilla and runner-up for Miss Alaska 1984, has had on the McCain campaign goes well beyond men’s tendency to avoid thinking with their heads. She’s making an old man look young.
American voters like to see their leaders as a reflection of themselves. That is why we hold politicians to a higher moral standard than, say, Hollywood actors. To many men across the country, Obama, the fresh-faced candidate of change was young and virile, and offered hope not only for the country, but for themselves. Although the projection of self upon the candidate was imperfect – Obama is indeed young, and with his svelte physique he doesn’t look like most Americans – it was the best among many poor choices.
But the addition Sarah Palin to the GOP ticket changes the equation. As Rush Limbaugh put it, she’s a babe.
You’ve, of course, heard the expression that we are the company we keep. I am well aware that people perceive me differently whether I am hanging out with my twenty year-old buddies than when I am with my friends in their thirties. I don’t even want to think about how the look at me when I am enjoying happy hour with my sixty year old associates!
Likewise, perceptions of John McCain and Barack Obama have shifted because of their selection of a running mates. Throughout the next few months, Sarah Palin, an intelligent, charming, attractive woman half his age, will be by John McCain’s side as he makes his case to become president. To many men, that’s got to be the American Dream. John McCain, overnight, went from an American Methuselah, to a political version of Hugh Hefner.
So I have to ask: who wins the virility wars now, Barack?