Not quite different

Whether a symptom of the times or the result of normal partisan politics, the 2008 presidential race has chosen (or created) drastically polarized candidates. The partisan politics had already done much to distract from the issues during the campaign, but with the addition of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin to the mix, the scandalizing media frenzy and staunch posturing have reached epic proportions.

The media attention has centered on Senator Obama and Governor Palin, arguably the most extreme of the four presidential and vice-presidential candidates. And because McCain is the oldest presidential candidate in history, Sarah “Heartbeat Away” Palin’s qualifications should be considered an important factor in this election. The media’s choice of who to spotlight partly obscures and partly highlights the fact that, aside from their ideologies, Palin and Obama actually have a lot in common, including their inexperience, their charisma, their representation of themselves as “agents of change” and their populism.

Both Obama and Palin are wildly inexperienced relative to other possible candidates for their positions. With eight years in the Illinois State Senate and less than four years as a senator, Obama had the least national experience of any of the six major candidates who participated in the Democratic primaries. With six years as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, two years chairing the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and two and a half years as governor of Alaska, Palin is, similarly, highly inexperienced in comparison to many other possible vice-presidential choices. While Palin’s experience involved executive power with more visible accountability, Obama’s involved working in a more bipartisan environment on national issues. It is difficult to judge the real capabilities of the two candidates based on their actions during their short respective public services. This is unfortunate, as their actions are probably more indicative of what they might actually do in office than what they say in hopes of getting elected. Both candidates, in a sense, you have to take on faith.

Perhaps, as a result, both candidates are charismatic and wildly popular among their supporters. Palin was at one point the most popular elected politician in the country, with an 82 percent approval rating in January (more recently, she is at 68 percent, an enviable rating for many governors). Palin’s values were apparent enough to those who cared about them that she didn’t need to tout them, and her policies were such that they brought her support from many Democrats. Obama is also known for having faithful supporters. Even in red-state Alaska prior to Palin’s nomination, I saw many more Obama than McCain signs, a symptom of the fact that those who plan on voting for him are voting for him, not voting against the other candidate like the “Nobama” breed of McCain supporters.

Both Obama and Palin have presented themselves as candidates of change. Obama, in the national eye at least, has done this the most clearly. He has published a book called Change We Can Believe In, outlining his presidential plans. His website now sports the motto “Change We Need.” Obama’s youth and inexperience, traits often used as an argument against him, are presented in this context as a strength: they mean that he is morally clean in his detachment from Washington politics, without investment in the status quo of Washington. With such a motto, Obama is also seeking the votes of independent voters who believe that putting Democrats in the White House, or this Dem in particular, will improve this country.

Palin, with the Republican label, paired with a candidate who is a fixture of Washington politics, is arguably more difficult to present as an agent of change on the national stage. The McCain campaign, however, also claims to be a ticket of change. One television commercial depicts McCain and Palin as “the original mavericks” highlighting (in what this Alaskan would call varying degrees of accuracy) Palin’s “unconventional” accomplishments in Alaska, including “standing up to big oil” in organizing a contract to build a gas pipeline, opposing “the bridge no nowhere” and cutting what she labeled as the wasteful spending of the Governor’s Office under her former mentor and predecessor, Republican Frank Murkowski. The message is that she is a new kind of Republican, and I think many Alaskans, both admiring supporters and bitter detractors, might agree with such an assessment.

Finally, and perhaps least apparent, both Palin and Obama have strong populist streaks; they present themselves respectively as compassionate champions of “small town” folk and “the people on Main Street.” Sarah Palin has stated that Alaskans deserve their “fair share” of the oil wealth produced by the private oil and gas companies, and some Alaskan detractors compare her – not without cause – to Hugo Chavez, the socialist president of Venezuela. I recently received, like every Alaskan resident, $1,400 from the state government because fuel costs are high in Alaska (like everywhere else in the country). Obama, for his part, speaks regularly of the struggles faced by the middle class and is in favor of nationalized healthcare.

McCain chose Palin in hopes of drawing some independents favoring Obama, and Obama did the same with his choice of Biden; we’ll see how their strategies work out.

Fiona Worcester ’09 is a psychology and art major from Anchorage. Alaska.