In the Denver Airport's mile-long security line, returning Democratic delegates were trying to cheer themselves up about John McCain's inspired choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. "Worst pick ever!" an obnoxious young fellow in a loud "Yes We Can" shirt bellowed, to nobody in particular. "Worst pick since Quayle!" The desperation was showing.
In one of the many other airport lines created by United Airlines, soberer delegates were shaking their heads with reluctant respect for McCain's stones. "Choosing Biden was the safe move," a Washington state Democrat said (quotes are approximate). "Choosing Palin was bold."
That seems exactly right. Biden's qualities are almost perfectly tailored to shore up precisely what people fear about Obama: Where Obama is almost dangerously inexperienced, Biden has been on the Foreign Service Committee since the Truman Administration. Where Obama is an arugula-nibbling, sophisticated Other, Biden is a lunchbucketeer who talks like Uncle Festus. Where Obama has trouble in the Rust Belt, Biden can't shut his trap about "the lineworker" and other fetishized regular Joes from Scranton. The whole play is defensive, and no matter how seemingly perfect Biden's qualities seem to fit Obama's needs, at the end of the day…he's still Joe Biden.
Palin, too, complements McCain—he's old and crusty, she's young and hot, he is still distrusted by social conservatives, she's a social-con darling, he's been in the Senate about as long as Joe Biden, she's a newish governor several thousand miles away. But the strategic calculation is about offense. You want an identity politics election? Bring it on! Think all those wayward Hillary voters are going to automatically come back to the fold? How about a candidate who's not afraid of a strong woman! And nothing reinforces the tattered but still-effective "maverick" reputation than choosing a largely unknown woman who is "as libertarian as you can hope for on a major ticket."
One urgent theme among Democrats in 2008, from the netroots to the top of the ticket, is that the party needs to come out swinging. Learn from the pugilism of the Gingrich Revolution. Forcefully rebut any attempts at swift-boating. Run toward, not away from, national security. Go on offense.
But it was McCain, not Obama, who used his veepstakes to take the fight directly to the enemy. A risky and potentially disastrous move, given that Palin has zero record on national security during a time of war and would be serving a president who could keel over at any moment…but it's a bold one.