Two political figures dominated the final months of the 2008 presidential campaign. One was the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. The other had been unknown to all but 670,000 Americans only a few minutes before she was first introduced by the Republican nominee, John McCain, at a rally in Ohio on the Friday before the Republican National Convention, only 66 days before the November election.
By the close of that first weekend, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska had become a national sensation. Two days after that, she delivered her debut address at the Republican National Convention as the party’s vice-presidential nominee—a dazzling stemwinder, it was all but universally acknowledged. McCain’s dramatic and unexpected bet appeared to have paid off in spades.
But by November 4, the day of the election, Sarah Palin had been transformed into one of the most divisive figures in recent American history. There was almost no middle ground between those who had come to adore her and those who believed she represented just about every dark and dangerous element of contemporary American politics. In choosing Palin, McCain had hoped to shake up the race; but the fault lines exposed by the Palin earthquake were not the ones he had thought they might be. He had wanted to run against the Washington status quo as a reformer with an independent streak. He believed he was picking a fellow reformist politician with a history of taking on the leadership of her own party, and that Palin would prove acceptable to the Republican base because of her social conservatism. Instead, Palin became an instant cultural and political magnet, attracting some and repelling others and dragging a helpless McCain into a culture war for which he had little stomach. Indeed, the overheated response to Palin’s presence on the national stage, from both friend and foe, was oddly disconnected from Palin’s actual actions, statements, and record. It was a turn of events no one could have anticipated, and one that has much to teach us about American political life in our day.
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