New York Republicans Admittedly Ambivalent On McCain-Palin

The Metropolitan Republican Club, counting Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani among its members, hosted a fundraiser debate-watch party October 7 for Saul Farber, a candidate for the New York State Assembly. Despite Farber's young age (at twenty-two, he is only a few months younger than his opponent Richard Gottfried was when he was elected to the Assembly in 1970), it was a mature crowd of about sixty people. About half were in their fifties or older; half in their thirties.

When I arrived, Farber was finishing up his campaigning, so the watch party could begin. He was telling his audience about an article that ran recently in The New York Sun. "I was called New York's Sarah Palin," he said. "I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing." Laughter ensued, and immediately I saw that these Republicans were ambivalent about their candidate for Vice President.

When I asked Farber later what he thought of Palin, his response was, "We don't share a lot of the same views." I asked whether he viewed her as a liability and for a few seconds he was quiet. "I think she has energized the base," he answered. "I think those who support her love her. Her liability is the original complaint we had about Obama--years served in office. But I don't believe she's inexperienced."

Patrick Condren served on McCain's New York Area Finance Committee. What does he think of Palin? He too paused. "She's the result of a maverick," he said, referring to McCain. But Condren feels that Palin provides something both candidates are missing. "It's the first time since 1960 that we're going to have a senator as president," he pointed out. "I think Palin brings some executive experience to the table."

It's not just her executive experience that's appealing; Palin does have her fans. "I think she's a role model for women," said Tracey Sheelen, a young blonde in pharmaceutical sales who is pro-life. "She started with the PTA, she's a governor, and she fought the old boys' network." Sheelen may not be a typical New York Republican, but she's not alone in her views.

Gail Allen, Secretary of the New York Young Republican Club, told me, "Palin has an amazing career as executive of the largest state of the union, and she has five kids. As women, we've been fighting for all of that: to play the mom role and have a full-time career."

Another woman, an attorney who preferred to remain anonymous, was much less enthusiastic. "I like her," she shrugged, "but she's not at the top of the ticket." Palin's position as number two is reassuring, I think, to those less comfortable with her. In the windows of the Metropolitan Republican Club are posters that say only "McCain"; Palin's name has conveniently been left off, and it provokes the sneaking suspicion that Republicans see her as a handicap. Another V.P. candidate may have been more palatable. Supermarket mogul John Catsmitaditis, who is newly Republican after supporting Hillary Clinton and who's currently exploring a bid for New York City mayor, told me, "I probably would have picked Romney."

However muted, I thought the criticism of Palin rather remarkable, coming from fellow Republicans so close to the election. The reluctance to criticize Obama--both during the debate and afterward--seemed equally remarkable, especially in light of how impassioned people can be when watching a presidential debate.

Some people rolled their eyes when Obama said he wanted to expand the Peace Corps; "you poor misguided little peacenik," I imagined them thinking. Most everyone laughed when McCain quipped that "nailing down Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing jello to the wall." But I counted on one hand the times people cheered and applauded. First was when McCain called Obama "the second highest recipient of Frannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history." The other times, more benign, were when Tom Brokaw stopped Obama from responding to McCain.

After the debate, I sought out reaction from the crowd, and even here, at the Metropolitan Republican Club, I heard some pro-Obama commentary. "He's inspiring," acknowledged Farber. "Obama's a wonderful orator. McCain is not matched in eloquence."

Condren, who had been on McCain's Finance Committee, also complimented Obama: "He is very articulate." He added, "Community organizing is real stuff. I respect that." Admittedly, New York Republicans aren't necessarily typical. As Condren said, "I am a New York City Republican which means I'm like a left-wing Democrat in Wyoming."

When I asked Allen, of the Young Republican Club, to comment on Obama's debate performance, she seemed hard pressed to find fault. "He was a politician being a politician," she said. But she offered no praise. "You have this guy who basically has spent his two years in government writing two books and running for president."

The most damning critique came from a young woman who withheld her name because, she said, her employer supports Obama. She took issue with Obama's foreign policy. "Why is it OK to go to Somalia and not Iraq?" she wanted to know. "What does that country need to do in order to warrant humanitarian support? Mass graves don't mean anything? A dictator didn't mean anything?" She went further: "Is it that it's not an African country? Obama will mention Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo. He thinks it's politically correct. It's not Iraq's fault that they have oil."