Recently I was gigantic. Or so it seemed because I was attending a school open house and sitting in a tiny chair designed either for a small child or an elf with one buttock. Context is everything.
I was thinking about context as I observed with fascination McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The immediate response from my lefty friends was that McCain was insane to pick a running mate with such a thin resume. That's one possibility. The other explanation is more interesting.
My first response to McCain's decision was to assume that Republicans did not suddenly forget how to win elections. If selecting Palin was a brilliant strategy in disguise, how exactly was it supposed to work?
McCain had a context problem. He was an old (too old) white guy from the failed establishment running against a younger and more exotic agent of change. It was a losing context. His choice of Palin changed the context.
Since selecting Palin, the discussion in the media and in kitchens across America has shifted from "Can you be too old to be President?" to "Can you be too young and inexperienced?" McCain has cleverly put his critics in the position of arguing that experience is a good thing. And McCain has more of it than Obama. If you believe that people only vote for presidents, not vice presidents, this was a clever move.
The Democrats' other big argument against McCain was that he's a phony maverick who won't really change anything. It's hard to make that case while at the same time criticizing him for making such a surprising pick for Vice President. You can argue with Palin's credentials, but you can no longer argue with McCain's willingness to buck conventional wisdom. That book is closed.
On the more obvious side of things, picking a young woman insulates McCain from being the charter member of the Old Boy's Club. It's politically correct to say voters are smart. But clearly there are millions of exceptions. Some voters prefer candidates who look like them, end of story. Palin will increase McCain's support from female votes and hardcore conservatives.
Palin also has the benefit of making McCain look more presidential by comparison. Call it the Dan Quayle effect. By way of contrast, Obama is in the position of having a running mate who is clearly more experienced than him, just as smart, and lacks only charisma. That exacerbates Obama's problem of looking like a celebrity and not a leader.
If Palin survives all the scandals and rumors, the argument against her comes down to experience. But how important is experience for a president? Quick, name a presidential mistake that was caused by inexperience as opposed to stupidity, laziness, bad luck, or any of a dozen other reasons. I'm no historian, but I can't think of any presidential mistakes attributed to inexperience.
Palin would have been the wrong choice for just about any other presidential candidate. But in the context of McCain's campaign against Obama, it might have been a brilliant campaign strategy. Is this another example of McCain being underestimated, or was it simply a brain misfire of an old man who ran out of time?
Frankly, I can't tell.