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?


Related Post:

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Mrs. Finn,

    If I’ve misunderstood you, I’m sorry. You seemed to be saying that a fetus must have genitals to be a fetus.

    I respect your candor about being on the fence at this point. I acknowledge your sincerity in saying that you are not pro-choice. And you are not alone if you do not want to support legislation that restricts abortion for those who wish to make that choice. You use the word “condemn,” which isn’t implied by anything in my post. I think it’s sensible to distinguish between prohibiting abortion and condemning those who prefer to have an abortion.

    Just today I’ve written a new post that speaks directly to Barack Obama’s position on abortion. I think you would find that interesting. You can go directly to that post by clicking here.


  2. mrsfinn says:

    THat’s not what I said. I SAID that the earlier comment on “killing unborn females” was untrue. But only for technicalities’ sake. If you READ my entire comment, you’d see that I’m NOT actually pro-choice. But neither would I condemn anyone for THEIR CHOICE!!!


  3. Doug Geivett says:


    Why do you think that the presence of absence of genitals determines personhood?


  4. mrsfinn says:

    I just wanted to clarify some things. I’m personally on the fence about pro-choice, I don’t condone abortion, but neither would I have it abolished. Which isn’t the point I’m trying to make. From a medical perspective, abortions MUST BE performed previous to the 8th week of pregnancy. To do so later involves too much risk to the “mother.” (In extreme cases I’ve heard of later gestation pregnancies being aborted, but this is rare.) Previous to the 8th week, the “fetus” is not actually a fetus yet, but still an embryo. Futhermore to that, the “fetus” has no sexual differentiation yet. Genitals don’t even begin to form until week 10. So, in reality, if you WERE to have an abortion, you would not be aborting a female OR male fetus. And technically, you would not be aborting a fetus at all.


  5. clancycross says:

    Strange how Americans as a whole seem to want their leaders to have some vague sort of belief in God — just not too much faith. As soon as they cross the line by showing that their political opinions are influenced by their religious faith (especially certain denominations of Christianity) they are judged by some to be threats to democracy. Those evil theocrats!

    Good thing the founders aren’t around to see what has happened to their country.


  6. lucidlunatic says:

    On the subject of wanting a woman president- while I feel that it would be an inherently good thing for America to have a woman president, allowing gender (or race) to affect my vote is irresponsible so long as there are other distinguishing factors. It’s rather like many initiatives in schools and the workplace to get a racially and gender balanced environment. I disagree strongly- if a male is more qualified than a female, let him have the job despite the fact you have yet to hire a female. I make no judgment as to the cause of this kind of situation, but let the most deserving have the position.

    As to the wisdom of McCain’s choice, I have to say I’m rather leery of Palin as President- and that’s what I would have to approve of in order to accept her nomination as vice president. Both McCain and Obama are at high risk of dying during their first terms, due to age/disease and assassination respectively. Thus whomever becomes the next vice president must make a capable president. Palin went from being a small town mayor to governor of one of our lowest population states- and has held that position for less than a year. She has never held any national position, to my knowledge. Now, I realize that governors have gone on to be president before. Frankly, I would probably be just as nervous about them, but in the course of their campaign I would learn about them and (probably) become more comfortable with them. Hopefully this will occur with Palin as well.

    I’m trying to be evenhanded, but let me also admit straight up that I am biased- I may be an Independent, but from what I’ve read, Palin and I are on opposing ends of the political spectrum on most issues. That’s the lense I’m looking through, and if it colored my comments, please call me on and feel free to correct my bias.


  7. Doug Geivett says:

    Anne, I don’t have an opinion about whether Sarah Palin is a stealth fundamentalist. I’d say we just don’t know that much about her yet. As far as I can tell, this isn’t because she’s been trying to hide anything. She apparently has conservative values and is open about it.

    Let us hope that our society never becomes so thoroughly secularized that people of traditional faith must practice their faith by stealth. If that happens, we will have ceased to be a democracy and become a totalitarian state.


  8. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi David,

    Ours is a media-saturated culture and we depend on the media to learn what’s going on and make informed decisions. But we obviously can’t simply trust the media to get it right. And the media sends out conflicting messages. So we have to be discerning. That requires careful attention to developing our critical skills, the same skills needed to sort out large and complicated questions—and answers—in philosophy and theology.

    Put simply, it’s a matter of collecting data and sifting the evidence. But there’s nothing simple about doing that.


  9. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Amey,

    I don’t know about a connection between Palin and Bush. But it should be easy enough to verify Palin’s claim to have reformed the taxation of oil producing companies and the redistribution of resulting tax revenue to the people of Alaska.

    I know that the citizens of Alaska do receive a payment from the state that is funded from oil service taxation.

    I don’t see any evidence that Bush is more determined to keep us addicted to oil than, say, most members of Congress. Is his experience working in the oil industry supposed to mean that he is opposed to energy reform?


  10. Doug Geivett says:

    Anne, I can see why some think a pro-choice position with regard to abortion is inherently suited to a pro-woman perspective. But I’m not convinced. If fetuses are human persons and they are gendered at the time of an abortion, then aborting female human fetuses seems to be anything but pro-woman.

    Or one might reason that being pro-woman consists in working for the flourishing of women both generally and individually. But what constitutes human flourishing, male or female? And how does this relate to a legal right to choose abortion? These are worldview questions. The conditions of human flourishing depend on what a human is, and these conditions may have little to do with what this or that human person chooses or prefers in certain kinds of circumstances.

    It seems possible for us to be mistaken about what contributes to human flourishing and what undermines human flourishing. If we are seriously confused about the nature of a human person and we are mistaken about what makes for human flourishing, there’s a good chance we’ll confuse our preferences with our fundamental rights. We might think we’re flourishing when we’re not.

    And there are large issues about the difference between what’s good for an individual and what’s good for society, or between what a particular person believes is good for herself or himself and what is best for society, and hence for that individual as a member of that society. These things can’t be determined my polling data.

    Let’s just imagine for the sake of argument that our society was so utterly life affirming that abortion was negatively stigmatized. This might result in different kinds of sexual behavior, such as abstinence and monogamy, for example. Again, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose it would. Finally, let’s suppose that interpersonal relationships between men and women would tend to be healthier over a broader cross-section of the population, if all these things were true. This could be the basis for thinking that the flourishing of women would be better served by this sort of life-affirming, or pro-life, perspective.

    These are deep issues, and much is at stake for individual women. So we desperately need respectful discussion about such things, and hope that thoughtful discussion between people who disagree will help them sort things out for the common good. Good leadership is needed to facilitate this kind of dialogue.


  11. Doug Geivett says:

    Anne, I’m interested in your desire to see a woman become President some day. I hear that quite a lot. But I’m puzzled by it. I’m most interested in seeing the best candidate serve as President, whether the candidate happens to be a woman or not. No doubt there are many woman who, as you say, have the chops for such a role. But I don’t quite see why gender should be a factor in favor of a candidate over against an otherwise equally prepared candidate of another gender.

    Sometimes when I hear people speak of wishing to have a woman become President, it sounds like sectionalism to me. Maybe that is the spirit in which some make that kind of statement. But I’m sure it’s not what everyone who says this means. Maybe some mean, in part, that the odds are, if a woman never becomes President, it will be because they are being systematically prevented from rising to such power. But I think the odds are that a woman will eventually become President. (And if Palin becomes the next VP, and a McCain administration acquits itself well in the eyes of a majority, then the odds are pretty good that Palin will become President in a subsequent general election.)

    Would you be willing to say more to clarify the best sense of saying “I desire a woman to become President”? I may be missing something important here.


  12. Doug Geivett says:

    Anne, I understand Palin is a person of faith, but I haven’t anything specific about her church affiliation. Do you know the name of her church?

    I do know something about dominion theology. There are a couple of versions of it, but what they have in common is a theological position called postmillennialism. This view holds that the millennium is a period when the kingdom of God will rule the earth through God’s people prior to the second advent of Jesus Christ. They generally are not expecting the rapture of the church, as this is more widely understood.

    One variety of dominionism is called Christian reconstructionism. It adheres to something called theonomy, or the re-institution of God’s law, as revealed in the Bible, on earth through government reformation. This may be what you’re referring to.

    It would help to know the name and denominational affiliation of Palin’s church.

    By the way, dominionism should not be confused with the attitude that Christians should be free to participate directly in the shaping of society and its institutions, by democratic means and in accordance with the laws of the land (for example, the U.S. Constitution). You seem to be saying that Sarah Palin’s views are more radical than this. I wouldn’t know, given what has been revealed about her so far.


  13. Amey B. says:

    • Has anyone checked to see if there is any connection between Palin and George Bush from the past? I’m just saying….kinda makes me wonder if we should be looking into a little conspiracy with the OIL connection thing??? How good would it be for Bush to have elected to office someone that could pull some strings for the Alaskan drilling situation and/or continue his fight to keep us addicted to oil after he’s out of office…after all her husband works for the BP OIL company….I don’t trust Bush and I don’t trust Palin either…never put anything past George Bush and his cronies…
    Amey B.


  14. David says:

    From a young, cynical and apathetic reader: what are the main sources used to evaluate political candidates and their policies?

    I confess to having taken a vow of TV-silence, and even political debates online tend to fall into the category of bias vs bias, or simply sound byte vs food fight. Is there any hope for me?

    Seriously I would like to dedicate some time to figuring out these issues but its not very attractive when compared to a huge book on theology or philosophy…guess the truth is much more likely to pop up in those pages 🙂


  15. annemprice says:

    PS: I suspect she is a stealth, under the radar fundamentalist pick, actually. Being as you are a man of faith, what’s your opinion?


  16. annemprice says:

    I appreciate having an open, respectful discourse. Her views are extreme because she is a member of a specific church that believes in The Rapture (a small, yet virulent dominionist group with an agenda of only “true believers” being qualified to hold positions of power in government). I am uncomfortable with the blurring of church and state, whether it comes from right or left.

    Her stance on abortion is but one of the positions she holds which is extreme. Consistently when questioned on the matter, the majority of Americans support abortion being legal. Not that they want one, or believe in it, but that they believe people have a right to make such decisions for themselves, privately. She has a rather militant, narrow view of this right. The same couldn’t be said of Obama, whose position is in line with the previously-mentioned majority opinion.

    She’s a fringe, when looked at through the prism of religion, experience, education and background. The “feminist” group she belongs to is a (mostly openly) militant group of anti-choice women who chose the word “feminist” as a way to mask their agenda – pro-life, but not necessarily pro-woman. I say this as your average mother of two, former Sunday School teacher. The religion behind these groups is extremist in nature. But, I suspect you already may know that.

    There’s a few interesting websites detailing her and her husband’s alleged abuses of power, getting people fired over personal disagreement and the like. Is she guilty? Time may tell. Or, if recent history is any indication, time may scrub the truth as much as Palin’s own website and wiki bio have been washed over the past few days.

    Again, I’m a reluctant Obama supporter who wants to see a woman rise to the presidency – but not one who has such an extremist view of religion and extreme stances on issues, stances that represent a minority, rather than the majority of Americans.

    As far as calling her unqualified, or the least qualified, you would have to ask those specific scholars of the VP and Prez offices what criteria they use for such things. I personally do not see where she has either the chops or the educational background to potentially end up as president – and with John McCain at his age with his health concerns, it’s quite possible she could become president.


  17. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Anne,

    Palin is under investigation, which doesn’t mean she’s done something wrong. We’ll see. But it sounds like you know she’s guilty of misconduct or abuse of power. But do you know that?

    Who is the average American woman?

    What do you mean by theocratic? You might be right about this, but I’m not aware of any signs of it.

    Our energy dependence is a matter of national security. And Palin has been very outspoken and proactive about drilling in Anwar as part of a comprehensive plan to become independent. She’s also commander-in-chief of the National Guard in a state adjacent to two foreign countries (including Russia) and boundless stretches of water. Obama has zero national security experience, and an assessment of Palin’s credentials on this score needs to be compared with the top of the Democrat ticket.

    I’ve seen the video of Palin’s remark about needing to know what a VP does day-in and day-out. She said this in response to a question about being a possible candidate for the office. Like most politicians, she was deliberately elusive in response to the question. I don’t think this implies that she thinks she isn’t prepared. (Again, she might not be.) The context of her statement suggests that it falls into the same category as John McCain’s answer to Rick Warren about who counts as a rich person. It’s bound to be distorted, and those who rely on a distortion of that kind of statement to make an argument reveal that they are simply opposed to the candidate for other reasons. We need to stick to the real reasons why we do or do not support a candidate, rather than obfuscate with red herrings.

    Here’s the irony of making an argument based on references to Palin’s question about the vice presidency. Notice, she didn’t say she didn’t know what a president does from one day to the next. The vice presidency has been viewed many, and by some vice presidents, as a benign office of little or no consequence—unless and until something happens to the president. One of Franklin Roosevelt’s VPs stated that the vice presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss.” Most people would have to check a reference work for the names of past VPs.

    It might even be argued that a person with supreme qualifications to be president of the United States should not be locked into a position that precludes the use of his or her strengths. A governor, even of Alaska, might be able to accomplish more than a vice president.

    What’s extremist about Palin’s views? Are you referring to her pro-life position? What is Obama’s position and why isn’t that regarded as extreme, albeit in a different direction?

    Finally, there’s no doubt that McCain’s choice is unconventional. The question is whether it’s a bad choice. Presidential historians need to be clear about what they mean by “inexperienced.” A President makes decisions across a diverse range of foreign and domestic issues. It will be natural to seize upon some of these at the neglect of others in rendering a verdict about Palin. Those who wouldn’t vote for the Republican ticket no matter what will cherry-pick the areas where Palin may be perceived to be ill-prepared. But I’m sure you know that many will view Palin as exceptionally well-prepared to serve this country when it comes to social initiatives, appointments to the Supreme Court and federal judges, and energy independence. So judgments about her readiness for the job will vary depending on the political predilections of those passing judgment.

    Palin is one kind of feminist, but not the kind that many would prefer to have in the White House. No doubt, this disqualifies her from their point of view. But looked at from another point of view, she’ll be regarded as eminently qualified.

    We can’t simply quote scholars when they render evaluative judgments. A historian can tell us about past trends in the vice presidency. Matthew Dallek, who says Palin is the most inexperienced candidate on a major party ticket in modern history, is using certain criteria for measuring experience. What are those criteria? Knowing the creds that past VPs have had—and none of them have been without deficits—does not make a historian an expert on whether an unconventional candidate could do the job.

    Sarah Palin may not be prepared to be VP—who is usually most fundamentally an ambassador of American goodwill at large. But that remains to be seen.

    Please keep your insights coming. This is the sort of discussion we need to be having.


  18. annemprice says:

    More grist for your mill, if you wish to post it:

    John McCain was aiming to make history with his pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and historians say he succeeded.

    Presidential scholars say she appears to be the least experienced, least credentialed person to join a major-party ticket in the modern era.

    So unconventional was McCain’s choice that it left students of the presidency literally “stunned,” in the words of Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor and scholar of the vice presidency. “Being governor of a small state for less than two years is not consistent with the normal criteria for determining who’s of presidential caliber,” said Goldstein.

    “I think she is the most inexperienced person on a major party ticket in modern history,” said presidential historian Matthew Dallek. […]

    “It would be one thing if she had only been governor for a year and a half, but prior to that she had not had major experience in public life,” said Dallek of Palin. “The fact that he would have to go to somebody who is clearly unqualified to be president makes Obama look like an elder statesman.”


  19. annemprice says:

    Her being under investigation for abuse of power and her questionable ethics.

    Her politics are those of extremism, theocratic in nature, frightening to the average American woman who holds a more moderate, even progressive stance.

    She’s not credible because she has shown no signs prior to this of even being interested in national security matters, by her own admission not knowing what a vice president even does every day, and having no discernable educational or experience background.

    It’s interesting that what nearly every paper in America sees and states clearly today you are being myopic about at the moment. Blind or eyes closed deliberately?

    To the average woman, I think her pick as VP smacks of every time some hottie got picked for style over substance and it smacks of desperation or perversion by the Republican nominee. None of this is good.

    And her extremist views will only energize the base. When the average woman hears of her positions, it makes Obama look like a conservative, safe choice.

    Religious zealotry is really unpopular these days. Haven’t you noticed?


  20. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Anne,

    It’s true that some in the media, especially Democrat pundits, have suggested that John McCain is naive if he thinks HRC’s supporters are going to vote for the Republican ticket because of Sarah Palin. But I’d say they’re naive if that’s what they think John McCain thinks. Neither John McCain nor Sarah Palin expect that. But Palin does have the potential to galvanize female voters who were inspired by HRC quite apart from her politics, and even more female voters dispirited by HRC’s politics.

    Whether she’s trying or not, Sarah Palin may well ride HRC’s coattails into history, maybe even Presidential history. I’ve prepared a separate post about that for tomorrow.

    You may be right that Palin is not a credible candidate. But what’s the evidence? Her age? Her experience? Her politics? We could find out tomorrow that she hasn’t got what it takes. But I remain open to the possibility that she’ll demonstrate between now and November 4 that she’s got the right stuff, or at least that the balance of the ticket is, all things considered, better prepared than the alternative ticket. I’m not prognosticating here. I’m prepared to wait and see.

    You and I agree that rock star popularity isn’t enough to qualify a candidate for high office.


  21. annemprice says:

    Sorry, but she’s trying to ride HRC’s coattails into a history book while doing absolutely nothing to earn the position. Not to belittle her education (it’s the same as mine, actually), but it certainly doesn’t qualify her for president.

    A rock star? Maybe.

    A viable, credible candidate?

    Sadly, no.


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