Do No Harm—John McCain’s Choice of Sarah Palin


In the world of politics, complexities are often encapsulated in squat phrases and nimble sentences. And when it comes to selecting a Vice Presidential running mate, the mantra has long been primum non nocere—”first, do no harm.” The principle is borrowed from the world of medicine and medical ethics. It’s been applied in situations where medical intervention poses considerable risk to a patient with an unknown or comparatively small margin for benefit. I guess it makes sense, especially during Presidential election campaigns, to liken major political decisions to life-and-death challenges in medical decision making.

When picking a running mate, what does it mean to Do No Harm? Earlier this month, William Kristol spelled out four criteria for choosing a vice president, and evaluated McCain’s options in terms of those criteria. (See “How to pick a vice president.”) Here were McCain’s basic options:

  1. Go with someone safe and predictable.
  2. Pick someone whose strengths will accentuate the opposing candidate’s weaknesses.
  3. Co-opt the public desire for change.
  4. Pledge to serve for a single term and stress the need for radical change in Washington politics.

If do no harm was uppermost in McCain’s mind, then criteria (1) and (2) should have been the determining factors. Judging by the shock registered in the media yesterday when McCain announced his choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the first criterion was pretty low on his list of guidelines. Since the shock was proportionate to the perceived inexperience (measured in age and time served in elected office) of McCain’s choice, the second criterion doesn’t seem to have influenced McCain. So Do No Harm, by Kristol’s reckoning, wasn’t McCain’s chief concern.

Let’s consider two questions.

Was McCain right to ignore the Do No Harm principle in selecting Palin to be his running mate?

Had McCain been far behind Obama in polling, especially in the most contested states, the political value of the Do No Harm principle would have been more salient. The gap in support between Barack Obama and John McCain was negligible at the time of McCain’s selection of Palin.

A politician has to be practical—or pragmatic, if you will. But much of the pragmatism exhibited by our politicians is befogged with cynicism. It is permeated with jaded negativity, which leads to posturing and snarky rhetoric. And this translates into a malaise of cynicism among the electorate. Exasperated, would-be voters lose interest and stay home on election day. Many of those who make their way to the polls buy into this jadedness and cast their vote for the angry candidate, or the candidate who represents the angry party. It’s a bad omen for a democracy when its elected officials rise to power on a wave of angry sentiment.

It would be most refreshing to see America’s leading candidates demonstrate real-world understanding without the baggage of cynical pragmatism. The Do No Harm principle is naturally attractive to the cynical. It is a sign of McCain’s governing optimism that he did not let the political appeal of such a principle determine his choice of running mate.

Politics is full of ironies. One of the great ironies of the current election season is that the Democrat party, led by Senator Obama, has mounted a campaign rooted in anger, warning a cowering sector of the electorate to forego “four more years of George Bush,” while suggesting, at the same time, that McCain is the one with a jaded view of the world, as indicated by his approach to Iraq and Iran. George Bush has been demonized by pundits on the far left of the Democrat party as “the worst President ever” and “a moron.” These pundits have tutored Obama to exploit this caricature and emphasize that John McCain has voted in sync with President Bush 90% of the time. So electing John McCain would be like relecting Bush, and that means perpetuating the worst thing that ever happened to America. (Never mind that Obama has voted 97% of the time in league with his own party, which happens to be at the helm of a Do Nothing Congress.)

McCain was right to ignore the beckoning spirit of cynical pragmatism in his choice of a running mate. Maybe it’s a symptom of the audacity of his hope for this nation.

What is the risk potential of McCain’s choice of Palin?

Let’s assume that Sarah Palin’s only liability is the electorate’s perception of her readiness for the job relative to her age and experience.

When it comes to experience and getting elected to executive office, Sarah Palin’s record is more impressive than Barack Obama’s, Joe Biden’s, and even John McCain’s. Most noteworthy is the comparison with Joe Biden, who began running for President twenty years ago and has never been nominated by his party. This year he turned in a lackluster performance with around 7% of the vote in the Democrat primary. If it was executive experience that Obama wanted to complement his perceived gross inexperience, why didn’t he pick Hillary Clinton? Could it be that he didn’t want to be overshadowed by experience?

When it comes to real political change and reformation, Sarah Palin’s record, again, dwarfs anything Obama has accomplished. As suggested by David Brooks in yesterday’s editorial for The New York Times, Obama loves the future because “that’s where all his accomplishments are.” If Obama’s message is A Message of Change, then why select a career politician, an old boy from inside the beltway—Joseph Biden?

Together, McCain and Palin look bouyant and centered. In a single day since McCain’s announcement that Palin is his running mate, $4 million dollars have been contributed to the Republican campaign. And the Republican National Convention hasn’t even begun yet. Meanwhile, Obama stuttered in his customary way through an impromptu response to McCain’s announcement and looked, I thought, like a deer caught in the headlights. I’m talking about the guy at the top of the Democrat ticket who gave his acceptance speech before 85,000 people just the day before Sarah Palin was announced.

And that leads to a third question: Is there a new rock star in town?

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