Selecting a veep. Who has the temperament to be president?
Carlton M. Caves
2008 August 31

John McCain doesn't have much to sell in this campaign, so his campaign has been focusing on how his POW and Washington experience have prepared him for the presidency, whereas Barack's experience, no matter what it may be, doesn't. Unfortunately for McCain, when you look closely at the two men, you find that Obama is a reflective man, who absorbs and thinks deeply about difficult material, consults with a seasoned set of advisors, and makes reasoned decisions based on what he knows, whereas McCain is known for a hair-trigger temper, an indifference to details, and quick decisions based on his gut.

McCain has come down on the right side of more issues than most Republicans---that's the source of his maverick reputation. This shows that his gut can be a good thing, but the quick temper and snap judgments, which are relatively harmless at the slow-motion pace of the Senate, would be major liabilities in a president. The president must be prepared to deal with sudden crises and to do so, not from rage, but from cool, seasoned, informed judgment. This kind of temperament sometimes develops with age, but age doesn't guarantee it. Obama seems to have it, and McCain doesn't.

McCain claims to be a man of experience after his nearly thirty years in Washington. Experience can be a great teacher, but experience alone doesn't necessarily produce the qualities we need in a president. McCain's greatest asset, honed over many years, is his ability to conduct free-wheeling riffs with the reporters who have covered him in the Senate and on the campaign trail. There is no question that this has bought McCain the good will of many journalists. This good will has been earned, and other politicians would do well emulate McCain's example. It's where his reputation for straight talk comes from, and it means that reporters often overlook his most egregious flubs. Admirable though this personal quality is and valuable though it is to McCain, it is not enough to qualify a person to be president.

The selection of a vice-presidential candidate is the first big, public decision that a presidential candidate must make, and here we find a stark contrast between Obama and McCain. Obama conducted a long, thorough search and came up with a choice, Joe Biden, that suggests he thought very hard about what he needed. He chose a person who complements his strengths, both in the campaign and in a future government. Biden can help him win, but more importantly, could step into the job of president in an instant were that necessary.

Contrast this with McCain's selection. He chose his running mate, Sarah Palin, to try to pick off disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton while also appealing to the Christian right. Palin is the nearly unknown governor of Alaska, who has almost no experience outside Alaska and even less outside the United States. Whether this pick achieves McCain's objectives remains to be seen---my guess is that any Hillary supporter who is attracted to a hard-right Christian fundamentalist just because she is a woman sort of missed the point of supporting Senator Clinton---but more interesting is what it tells us about McCain's decision making. His choice of an unknown, completely inexperienced governor undercuts his own experience argument, as many immediately noted, but it also brings into serious question the judgment of a 72-year-old candidate with a history of the most dangerous kind of skin cancer.

Just as important as the quality of McCain's selection is what it tells us about his decision-making style. McCain's campaign is already having to circulate stories that Palin received the same thorough vetting as the other vice-presidential prospects. Why do they have to do this? Because it certainly appears that the selection of Palin was a snap judgment made early last week, perhaps after McCain watched Hillary's Tuesday evening speech at the Democratic National Convention and decided he needed a woman to attract the unhappy Clinton supporters that the media dug up so they would have a story. After this Tuesday evening epiphany, McCain summoned Palin to his vacation home in Flagstaff on Wednesday and offered her the veep spot then and there.

McCain's aides say that Palin was involved in the same vetting process as all the other prospects, but what they do not say is that McCain has any history with Palin that would suggest that he knows much, if anything about her---and surely he doesn't because you can bet they would be at pains to point out his extensive personal acquaintance with her were there anything to point to. What they do say is that McCain met Palin at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington last February and that there he spent fifteen minutes talking to her at a social gathering his campaign had organized. Apparently that was it till he offered her the job last week. This is shoot-from-the-hip, McCain style, on the most important decision he must make as a candidate.

We've had a cowboy in the White House for nearly eight years now, a cowboy who operates on gut instincts and who doesn't budge when facts get in the way of the gut. McCain has a different, marginally better gut, but this country needs more than someone's gut to deal with the manifold challenges we face. Obama's good judgment and cool temperament might not sell in a presidential campaign, but God help us if we put a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy with a quick temper in charge of things.

In choosing McCain, the Republicans stumbled into nominating the only candidate who would have a prayer of winning the general election. Regrettably, they might also be nominating the only leader in their party whose temperament and decision-making skills are worse than Bush's.

Addendum: 2008 September 2

Peter Wallsten reports in the Los Angeles Times today: "According to [one Republican strategist], who would discuss internal campaign strategizing only on condition of anonymity, the McCain team used little more than a Google Internet search as part of a rushed effort to review Palin's potential pitfalls. Just over a week ago, Palin was not on McCain's short list of potential running mates, the Republican said."

Addendum: 2008 September 2

It appears now that Palin was called to Flagstaff on Wednesday for interviews with McCain aides and his chief vetter, Arthur Culvahouse, Jr., and was offered the position by McCain on Thursday.

   Index to CMC commentaries