I was on my way back from the Democratic Convention when word broke about McCain's choice for V.P. How quickly the news cycle turns.
Only hours before I was standing on the floor of the Invesco stadium with a group of Louisiana delegates who, despite having lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, were feeling optimistic about Obama. Listening to the "I Have a Dream" speech with African American delegates who were moved to tears, I got the feeling that something big was happening.
But after changing flights in Milwaukee I was seated next to a Rush Limbaugh ditto-head who pronounced the Denver convention "boring" - including Obama's speech to 80,000 attendees and a TV audience that had more viewers than the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. He was delighted by McCain's choice of Sarah Palin (a "babe") and couldn't wait for the GOP convention to begin.
After a rain delay for Hurricane Gustav that conveniently bumped the reviled George W. Bush off the stage, and the flap about Palin's teenage daughter (did McCain really make his choice in such a panicked rush he didn't notice the pregnant 17-year-old in the living room?), the Republicans put on their own affair.
The contrast between the two conventions was overwhelming. I suspect the Gustav stunt - convention planners declared they were going low-key in honor of the hurricane's victims, even as the storm was downgraded from a category 3 to a category 1 - was a way to avoid competing with the fireworks in Denver.
Likewise, McCain's choice of Palin, the governor of Alaska, was partly an effort to capitalize on disaffection among Democrats who wanted Hillary. Palin drove that home in her acceptance speech by describing her candidacy as the fulfillment of Hillary's promise to crack the "highest, hardest glass ceiling."
I must admit I didn't really believe in that much-touted creature, the Hillary/McCain voter, until I met some for myself at the Democratic convention in Denver.
It seemed to me that the media and pollsters were mixing together two disparate groups: feminists who badly wanted a woman president, and so-called Security Moms who tend to vote Republican because they are worried about terrorism and are generally opposed to taxes. After all, what kind of feminist would vote for McCain, who has an almost perfect anti-abortion, and even anti-birth-control, voting record in the Senate?
But it turns out there are some.
"We totally believe that Barack Obama is not qualified to be the president," said Shirley Thomas, a fifth-grade teacher from Marietta, Ga., who came to the convention with a group of Hillary backers. "He doesn't have the résumé, and Hillary was the most experienced. And, frankly, the election was stolen from her."
Carolyn Darity, a product manager in technology in Washington state, agreed. "I can't vote for a candidate who is not ready to lead our country. Our country is in turmoil. He doesn't have the résumé." Darity declared that she might vote for McCain.
"Experience" and "résumé" are words you hear often from Hillary voters angry about Obama's nomination. What does McCain's choice of Palin, possibly the most unqualified V.P. candidate ever selected, tell these women?
Palin has been governor for less than two years of a state with a population roughly three times the size of Madison. Her total prior experience isfour years on the city council of a town with a population of less than 7,000, then a few years as its mayor.
That makes Obama's three years in the Senate and seven years in the Illinois legislature seem positively presidential. Not to mention the massive contrast in worldliness between the two candidates. Obama has spent significant time abroad and has roots in three countries. Palin, who has lived in Alaska all her life, didn't even have a passport until 2007.
As a candidate who is particularly likely to succeed the old and ailing Republican presidential nominee, she wipes the "experience" argument right off the table. McCain's choice of Palin puts the kibosh on any "October Surprise" national security crisis: the threat of war or terrorism, real or concocted, would stir up at least as much anxiety about the Republican ticket as the Democrats.
Palin's pro-life bona fides are even stronger than McCain's - another reason pro-choice Democratic women, a core group for Hillary, ought not support her.
Yet here was Hillary's reaction to the pick: "We should all be proud of Gov. Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Sen. McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Gov. Palin will add an important new voice to the debate."
That would be the voice that condemns abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Worse, Geraldine Ferraro, who broke the V.P. glass ceiling 25 years ago, went on NPR and not only defended the remarks that got her fired as a Hillary consultant - about Obama getting where he is by being black - but intimated she hadn't made up her mind who she would vote for.
Are you kidding me?
Identity politics are all fine and good. No one is really immune from them, whether it is the delegates in Denver who got goosebumps thinking about the symbolic significance of an Obama victory, or the Hillary supporters who seemed so focused on avenging their girl they were willing to vote against everything she stood for.
But at some point practicality has to set in. Or at least self-respect. If you take umbrage at Obama for his lack of experience, if you are yearning to see women finally take charge of the country, do you really vote for the Christian Right "babe"?
Ruth McConiff of Madison is the political editor of The Progressive.