1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A Calculated Choice

Interview: Jennifer Abramsohn September 1, 2008

US presidential candidate John McCain's choice of greenhorn Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate took many by surprise. A German expert on US politics called the choice "risky, but very good."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, left, smiles as his Vice Presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, pumps her fist as she is introduced to supporters at a campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 29, 2008.
In Palin, McCain says he has met his 'soul mate'Image: AP

On Friday, Aug. 29, 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain surprised observers with his choice for vice presidential running mate. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a 44-year-old Evangelical Christian and a mother of five, who takes a strong anti-abortion stance. Her rise through the ranks of politics -- from small town mayor to maverick governor to candidate for high national office -- has been meteoric.

Josef Braml, an expert on US affairs with the independent think tank German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), said McCain's choice was unexpected, but inspired: It enabled the candidate to avoid some political pitfalls, take on the mantle of change, and open up the Republican tent in one fell swoop.

DW-WORLD.DE: What do you make of John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin?

Josef Braml: The longer I think about it the more I become convinced that he made a risky, but very good choice.


He had to walk a thin line. He didn't want to become beholden to the Christian right -- it would have alienated independent voters, where he is also very strong. But on the other hand he has to please the Christian right. We shouldn't forget that four out of 10 voters for George W. Bush were from the Christian right, and they needed to be made happy.

Sarah Palin holding a rifle on a visit to Kuwait troops
Palin visited troops in Kuwait in July, 2007Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Ms. Palin is obviously the perfect choice for that. She not only stands for the right to life, but her own life exemplifies that. She gave birth to a child when she already knew it would have Down syndrome. Some women may have aborted that child, but she didn't. That is very important for true believers on the Christian right.

It was an important choice because the Republican tent is big and this way, McCain can make them all happy.

How did McCain avoid alienating independents?

He didn't go full-blast for the Christian right. He could have picked, say, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He is definitely one of (the pro-life camp's) standard bearers. But that would have been too close to the Christian right.

Picking a woman who lives up to their values, a role model, and a mother they really like -- that's a trick for both constituencies.

In her speech welcoming the nomination, Sarah Palin was full of praise for Hillary Clinton. Observers thought she might be making a bid for disenfranchised Hillary voters. Is that a clever strategy?

I don't think so. This Hillary Clinton analysis -- that Palin is trying to get votes from her -- contradicts everything I just said. This is a struggle for values-voters. Hillary Clinton's voters are on the opposite side of the culture war from Sarah Palin's voters.

Hillary voters are for the right to choose (in the abortion debate). They may not like it, but (since McCain nominated Palin) they have one more reason to vote for Obama. They will have to go to him to avoid having McCain nominate a Supreme Court justice who could swing the court and overturn Roe v. Wade.

After she was named, some Republicans appeared to be trying to add gravitas to Palin's resume by stressing her role as the leader of the Alaskan National Guard… Will McCain's choice of running mate affect foreign policy?

This is the only downside I see in the choice of Palin. McCain's argument against Barack Obama is now void. He can no longer accuse Obama of not having enough foreign policy experience, when Sarah Palin -- who has no foreign policy experience at all -- may be a "heartbeat away" from the presidency, as Americans say.

Recent portrait of Todd and Sarah Palin standing side by side
Palin's husband, Todd, is a commercial fishermanImage: AP

She has been mayor of a small town, and is a first-term governor of a state that doesn't have much to do with foreign policy, to say the least. So I don't see his line of attack against Obama being that valid anymore.

So does McCain's choice make sense as a political move, considering all the weight being put on the international relations right now?

I gather that McCain may have realized the theme of "change" resonates better than the theme of "experience," which Hilary Clinton realized before him.

Remember early in the campaign, when Hillary was banking on experience, and came in with Madeleine Albright and all the experienced hands? And then when she lost the first primaries, well, you didn't see much of Madeleine Albright anymore. You saw young people.

Now McCain has figured out that the theme of change resonates well at a time when almost two-thirds of the country are sick of the current president, and 8 out of 10 people think the country is on the wrong track. He has chosen a young face, a dynamic face, somebody who can go against Washington, against pork barreling, against all the things even Republican voters are sick and tired of.

It was a good choice, in that it covers up his weaknesses, because he has been in Washington a long time, too.

Now both candidates have chosen their number-two. Who made a smarter choice, McCain or Obama?

I think highly of Joe Biden as a foreign-policy maker. He has a strong record. But I'm not sure he is the perfect choice for a presidential candidate who wants to be Commander-in-Chief himself. He may remind too many people of the acting president. He didn't have much experience either, and he picked Dick Cheney.

Picture of Sarah Palin (then Heath) after she won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant contest in 1984 in Wasilla, Alaska.
A young Sarah was a local beauty pageant winnerImage: AP

I think (Obama's choice) is more showing people his weak spot than covering up for his weakness. … It contradicts the theme of change, to have a guy next to him who was doing foreign policy before Obama himself even went to college.

In her first speech as McCain's running mate, Palin stressed her pride in her 19-year-old son, who is going to fight in Iraq. She was quite patriotic and pro-military. Her tone put McCain's campaign in a different light than Obama's, which seems to be about stressing diplomacy and bridge-building. Will McCain's choice impact the US image overseas?

I wouldn't listen to Sarah Palin's speech to figure out what US foreign policy will be all about. She is nominated for vice president and she won't be Dick Cheney, because of her lack of experience.

I see why McCain chose her -- like I said, it has to do with electoral calculations. But if you look at both candidates carefully, you see there is actually not much foreign policy difference between them.

McCain speaks bluntly about the alliance of democracies, which isn't very popular here in Europe. If you examine the speech Obama made in Germany, you see … he didn't once utter the word United Nations. Knowing that Germans love the UN, that may be a message in itself.

Obama said NATO was the greatest alliance we ever had. But many Europeans don't like the idea of a global NATO. He more or less said an indirect version of what McCain has said more bluntly.

Does McCain send a message about energy policy by picking a running mate from Alaska, where offshore drilling is such a contested issue?

John McCain has had to walk a thin line, and he has caused a few hard feelings.

On the one side, he is for a change of energy policies. He realizes America cannot drill its way out of this problem -- as even some billionaires like T. Boone Pickens admit now. They are now seeing a line of business in windmills and solar parks. So you have business-minded Republicans who already realize the trend of the future.

But there are still some traditional oil Republicans and they needed to be pleased as well. So again, this pick gives both sides some credit.

With a little over two months to go and both tickets in place, how would you call this election?

It depends entirely on external events. If there is a security problem, McCain has the better chance. If the situation is more or less the same, it will be "the economy, stupid," and Obama will have a leg up.