It is perhaps surprising that one of the greatest nuggets of philosophical wisdom comes not from some Greek thinker or revered English playwright, but from the 1984 Rock-N-Roll spoof "This is Spinal Tap." In it, the addled philosopher-rocker David St. Hubbins observes "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
I will hazard a guess that John McCain has never seen the movie.
In picking Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate, McCain has done what seems to be an astonishingly clever thing. Palin is successful and bright, by all accounts personable, vivacious, and energetic. She's the kind of woman that any man would like to have as a mother, wife or daughter. She's the kind of woman that any other woman might admire and aspire to be.
And yet, McCain may have veered dangerously close to David St Hubbins' dreaded line.
For one thing, he has neatly kicked a rhetorical leg out from under himself. Never again will anyone be able to listen with a straight face when he accuses Barack Obama of bring a naïve, inexperienced lightweight. Palin is just 44 years old and has been governor for just two years after serving as a small town mayor. In terms of heavy-weight national and international experience, or even just life experience, she and Obama are roughly tied. If she's ready to be president in the event of McCain's death, then Obama is ready to be president in the event of McCain's defeat.
But perhaps even more seriously, McCain has made the one mistake that neither candidate should have made (and yet both did). He picked a person who highlights his most serious perceived weakness. There are few people in the country that could have highlighted more painfully McCain's age and frailty, or thrown into sharp relief his status as a grey-haired Washington insider. Perhaps only Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal could have done more to make McCain look like a feeble and aging veteran senator.
Of course, Obama has made roughly the same mistake. By picking Joe Biden, Obama has tied his fortune to a serious, respected, graying elder statesman with a lengthy Washington career. The choice of Biden doesn't remove a rhetorical weapon for Obama, as McCain's choice did for the GOP, but it will still make it painfully clear that Obama is young and relatively inexperienced. Perhaps worse, Biden is lively, funny, and irreverent (if excessively verbose at times), likely to charm the press and voters. This will be a painful contrast with the dour, distant, and slightly disapproving demeanor that Obama has projected so far.
Unfortunately, it may not be so easy for voters to decide in November which side of David St. Hubbins' line they are standing on.