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Commentary: Does President Palin sound plausible - or safe?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 20, 2008 - In selecting Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Sen. John McCain failed the first test of his fitness to be president. Gov. Palin’s campaign performance suggests that she probably is the most unqualified vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket in recent history. The prospect of her as vice president or president would be alarming in any times, especially so in these times. Sen. McCain was reckless to choose her and his poor judgment raises concern regarding the decisions he would make as president and how he would make them.

Sen. McCain had plenty of reasons to choose a well-qualified running mate. The vice president is, of course, the first successor; and nine presidents, roughly 25 percent of those initially elected to the job, have not completed their terms. Sen. McCain’s age, 72, and repeated bouts with melanoma, should have raised concern regarding succession.

During the past three decades, the vice presidency has become a highly significant position. Vice Presidents Walter F. Mondale, Al Gore and Dick Cheney were arguably second in fact as well as rank and George H.W. Bush and the underestimated Dan Quayle also made contributions. All served as senior general advisers and troubleshooters who could handle assignments that needed high-level attention, a particularly valuable role given the challenges confronting the next president.

Virtually all presidential nominees during this period chose a running mate who could help govern. They did not neglect political considerations but generally found a partner who was a plausible president. From 1976 to 2008, most presidential candidates chose someone who was either an experienced national leader, had demonstrated ability in presidential politics, or had discharged an important national party leadership assignment.

Not Sen. McCain. He chose someone with the thinnest resume of service in high level positions in more than 50 years. Gov. Palin’s lack of experience in high office is not by itself disqualifying. A relative newcomer may demonstrate presidential qualities once on the national stage. Sen. Barack Obama, for instance, has displayed his comprehension of national and international issues, his ideas and abilities in primary competition against formidable contenders, in debates and interviews by media across the political spectrum, and in the general election campaign. His performance provides some assurance of how he analyzes ideas and performs under pressure.

Gov. Palin’s performance has not been reassuring. Initially she avoided all media interviews to an extent unprecedented in modern times, a course that revealed what the McCain campaign thought of her readiness. The few interviews she eventually granted peaked at mediocre before plummeting to her disastrous sessions with Katie Couric, a performance that prompted prominent conservative columnists to concede she did not belong on the ticket.

She exceeded expectations in the vice-presidential debate only because those expectations were so low. She displayed far less substantive knowledge and understanding than any vice-presidential candidate in the history of those debates. Since then, she has embarked on a low-road attack on Sen. Obama reminiscent of then Sen. Richard M. Nixon ‘s verbal assault on Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson during the 1952 campaign.

Sen. McCain made a bad decision because he used a flawed process and applied the wrong criteria. Most recent presidential nominees have either observed their eventual choice over time, often under the pressure of a national spotlight, or have had lengthy conversations with them. Sen. McCain’s first private meeting with Gov. Palin occurred the morning he selected her when he was committed to announcing his choice the very next day. Prior to that time, he had little personal exposure to her.

We do not know whether he left the decision to the last minute or essentially decided on Gov. Palin before their meeting. Under either scenario, he made an impulsive decision on a critical matter he had months to consider.

Sen. McCain’s choice of criteria was more flawed than his process. He had presidential options including Sen. Joe Lieberman, former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and Gov. Mitt Romney but apparently feared that all or some would not please the Republican social conservative base. Gov. Palin appealed to him because the base adored her, she reinforced his maverick image, and he hoped she would appeal to women voters.

Yet, he sacrificed the single most important criteria for a running mate — selecting someone presidential. In so doing, he acted contrary to the practice of most modern presidential candidates. He surely did not put America first.

His performance in this critical decision suggests that in addition to doubts about a Vice President Palin or a President Palin, we should have serious misgivings about the judgment of a President McCain.

The other side

Cal Thomas says "You can't fake authenticity" and Sarah Palin has it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says liberals have treated Palin unfairly and have given Obama more passes than an NFL wide receiver. 

Suzanne Fields says , "There's something about Sarah" that speaks to the American people.Missouri Right to Lifeendorses McCain and Palin

Joel K. Goldstein is  author of "The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution."