McCain has a lot riding on vice presidential debate
Sen. John McCain will not, of course, be on stage at the vice-presidential debate but in a very real sense the debate is as much about him as about anyone or anything else. The event constitutes a reckoning of sorts for him. Voters will be observing and judging the performance of Gov. Sarah Palin but the conclusions they reach will and should shape their assessment of Sen. McCain.
In selecting Gov. Palin to be his running mate, Sen. McCain took a riverboat gamble. Gov. Palin was an attractive running mate for him because the Republican social conservative base, which had misgivings about Sen. McCain, liked her and because her record taking on corruption in the Alaskan Republican Party presented her as a political maverick. He also hoped her presence on the ticket would appeal to some disgruntled women supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Sen. McCain gambled that these potential political assets would compensate for some obvious weaknesses. Gov. Palin brought to the ticket the most modest resume of service in high level governmental positions in more than 70 years. Sen. McCain barely knew her and had spent little time discussing the position with her. Although the McCain campaign shielded Gov. Palin from media scrutiny in a way unprecedented in modern times, the few interviews Gov. Palin did conduct, especially with Katie Couric, suggested that she had little familiarity with national and international issues.
The vice-presidential debate provides an important way in which our political system holds presidential candidates accountable for their vice-presidential choices. For 90 minutes, the vice-presidential candidate must discuss national and international issues before a national audience. Past vice-presidential debates have generally been quite substantive and demonstrated that the candidates on both sides have a high degree of substantive knowledge and ability to think on their feet.
The vice-presidential debate could not come at a more critical time. The nation faces the greatest financial crisis since the Depression, potential nuclear threats from rogue nations as well as terrorist groups, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the aftermath of hurricanes that have devastated American cities, and the specter of climate change, which may compromise the ability of human beings to live on this planet. The test for each vice-presidential candidate is whether they have the knowledge, skill and wisdom to lead the nation with respect to those and other challenges if they become president and whether they have the ability to contribute to their solution from day one as vice president.
The vice-presidential debate provides one opportunity to measure Gov. Palin and Sen. Joseph Biden against those tests. Sen. Biden, like Sens. McCain and Obama, has discussed his views for years in presidential debates and media interviews. He has conducted more than 100 interviews since joining the Obama ticket; Gov. Palin, only a handful since her selection. After the debate, the McCain campaign may continue its practice of insulating her from media scrutiny. A continuation of that strategy would be an unfortunate affront to basic principles of democratic accountability.
The vice-presidential debate is one commitment no vice-presidential candidate can avoid. And while it presents a measure of those on stage, it also presents a measure of the judgment, wisdom and leadership of those who chose them, and whether they put America first in selecting the running mates they chose.
Joel K. Goldstein is an authority on the vice presidency and a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law. To rearch him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.