Dems, don't take the bait

The Baltimore Sun

Sarah Palin is an electoral rabbit. If Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats and various liberal interest groups are smart, they won't give chase.

Tonight, the Alaska governor will ascend the stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul to deliver her acceptance speech. Mrs. Palin is smart, attractive and a good speaker. Her personal story is compelling, if a bit unusual.

She is the wife of a union member and the mother of five. Her children include a son, her youngest, with Down syndrome and an unwed 17-year-old daughter whom we recently learned is five months pregnant. (The Palin family announced that Bristol, the daughter, will have the baby and plans to marry the father; Mr. Obama has made clear that his campaign will not make an issue of the pregnancy, declaring, "Families are off limits. People's children are especially off limits.")

Though Governor Palin's story is atypical - in case you hadn't heard, among other biographical tidbits, Mrs. Palin is a former runner-up for Miss Alaska who used to go moose hunting with her father and remains an advocate for the legalized shooting of wolves from helicopters - Mr. Obama and his team would be wise to ignore her and let the national conversation about Mrs. Palin go in whatever direction the media take it.

Why? Because in picking her, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain sent both a clear message and a thinly veiled dare.

The clear message is that Mr. McCain is more worried about losing this November than leaving the country in untested hands, were he to win the election and at some point either die or resign. As The New York Times reported this week, Mr. McCain wanted to pick either former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, both of whom he knows well. But both are pro-choice men, so Mr. McCain opted, in a rush, for Mrs. Palin.

Religious conservatives may think the Alaska governor is qualified. But as Mr. McCain might put it: My friends, the truth is that the underlying motive for his selection of Mrs. Palin was not "Country First" but "Votes First."

Because the economy, the war and his proximity to President Bush are all electoral liabilities, the Arizona senator is hoping to score sympathy points by baiting Democrats into attacking Mrs. Palin. What Mr. McCain seeks is an opportunity to express outrage, a chance to get his dander up and look tough and chivalrous by defending his gal.

It's a smart move because it's risky to criticize a mother for her anti-abortion positions when she knowingly brought a child with Down syndrome into the world. It's risky to complain that she's unprepared for the office (she's been governor for less than two years) because it smacks of setting a higher readiness standard for the only woman on a major party ticket, no less the only candidate with executive experience.

Heck, even pointing out that she was mayor of a small town and is governor of a small state risks offending Americans from small towns and small states - and there are plenty of such voters in swing states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Sarah Palin is a bad choice for America, but she is a daring pick in the literal sense for John McCain: He chose her in order to tempt Democrats and Barack Obama to attack her. That said, other than in brief response to her speech tonight, and her one-on-one debate with the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden, in October, the Democrats should ignore her.

In that lone vice presidential debate, Mr. Biden can criticize her environmental record, her belief in intelligent design and disbelief in man-made global warming, her uninformed statements about Iraq or her flip-flop on supporting the "Bridge to Nowhere" boondoggle.

And if Mrs. Palin starts boasting about limited government and self-reliance, Mr. Biden can gently point out that few states receive more federal money per capita than Alaska, which, according to the Tax Foundation, ranked in the top six states in per capita federal spending every year since 1999.

But otherwise, let that rabbit run.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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