A presidential candidate waging a tough campaign decides to shake up the contest by choosing an obscure female politician as his running mate, hoping that the historic choice will provide an advantage against the other party's all-male ticket. That's a description of Walter F. Mondale's ill-fated choice of Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro in 1984, but it also sums up John McCain's selection Friday of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Of course, that's not the only reason McCain made this surprise choice. In Palin, who is just halfway through her first term as governor, McCain has found an ardent opponent of abortion rights who won't provoke the outrage from social conservatives that might have greeted a more experienced, pro-choice candidate such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. But what happened to his insistence that a running mate be qualified to serve as commander in chief? (The McCain campaign was reduced to pointing out that Palin is commander of Alaska's National Guard.)
Palin's selection is also transparently an attempt to woo bitter female supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign. Palin herself confirmed that calculation in her introductory appearance. "It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America," she said, "but it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all."
To be fair, this is hardly the first time a presidential candidate has elevated electoral considerations above experience in choosing a potential vice president. Mondale did so when he chose Ferraro. An even better example is George H.W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle in 1988. That selection, like McCain's, was designed partly to placate restive Republican conservatives. Those are not persuasive precedents. In one respect, McCain is in even less of a position to gamble than were Mondale and Bush. His age makes it especially important that his running mate be prepared to assume the presidency at a moment's notice.
Palin might surprise us. Unlike Quayle at his unveiling, she was eloquent and self-assured at Friday's event in Dayton, Ohio. She may prove to be a quick study in national security affairs, though it's hard to imagine her piecing together a foreign policy portfolio comparable to Joe Biden's by Nov. 4. Let's be honest: The learning curve that confronts Palin is the steepest facing a vice presidential candidate in recent memory. That McCain was willing to take this gamble may not be a sign of desperation, but it gives a new and unsettling meaning to his claim to be a maverick.