Friday, October 17, 2008

Sarah Palin: What Were They Thinking

An interesting article has come out on how Sarah Palin was selected as McCain's running mate. Apparently Bill Kristol played a major role in the selection. Apparently well before the Republican convention Palin was on the very short list, with Joe Lieberman and Mitt Romney as the other members. Clearly, Lieberman would represent an appeal to swing voters strategy, Romney a general fence-mending strategy, and Palin a rally-the-base strategy.

But the article does not answer the most basic question -- why Palin? If the goal was to rally the base, surely Mike Huckabee would have been just as effective, as would a wide variety of Southern and Midwestern evangelicals with stronger resumes. If the plan was to introduce a running mate with executive experience, any GOP governor (including Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney) would do and, again, many would have been eminently better qualified. If the plan was to appoint a woman to attract disgruntled Hillary supporters, there were better qualified Republican women. (Kay Bailey Hutchinson is the most commonly named). And Elizabeth Dole is a woman, widely trusted by all factions of the Republican Party, with crossover appeal to swing voters, and two executive experience in two federal cabinet positions. So why Sarah Palin?

I don't have any privileged inside information, but here is my guess. Frustration with Obama. From the McCain campaign perspective, Obama was a freshman Senator, new on the scene, without the credentials to be President, yet far from being disqualifying, his inexperience was offering the attraction of novelty and huge media attention. He seemed a vapid celebrity without substance, who elevated celebrity appeal over any real qualification. And he was winning. The McCain campaign pointed these things out and they did, in fact, make a dent in Obama. But they should have destroyed him altogether.

So, after condemning Obama for inexperience and empty celebrity didn't work (at least not well enough), McCain, Kristol and others decided that if the American people wanted novelty and celebrity, they would offer novelty and celebrity in the person of Sarah Palin. It worked at first. People magazine and other gossip mags ran front page articles on how this mother of five managed to juggle small children, a Down's baby and being governor of Alaska. The base, and others, gushed over her pregnant daughter who was going to marry the father and make a fresh start. McCain's ratings got a boost. But it didn't last. It didn't last because the campaign made two serious miscalculations.

First of all, they ignored that not all the attention that goes with novelty is good attention. The fickle press soon tires of the new candidate they just lauded. Obama got serious negative attention on everything from Reverend Wright to his bowling scores. McCain, on the other hand, got mostly a free pass for his membership in the Keating Five because it was old news. Palin soon turned out to have some skeletons in her closet, too, and, once the first glow wore off, has attracted a flurry of negative coverage.

But more importantly, the McCain campaign seriously underestimated Obama. They could plausibly claim (and, indeed, believe) that he was a substance-free celebrity, until a real substance-free celebrity appeared on the scene. Suddenly, after Sarah Palin's disasterous interviews and debate performance, the accusation lost a lot of plausibility. The American people had seen what a substance-free celebrity sounds like, and Obama didn't sound like that.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of how thoroughly Palin proved the Obama was more than an empty celebrity comes from Charles Krauthammer's reactions. On before the interviews and debate, he could easily dismiss Obama as "the ultimate celebrity candidate" being displaced by Palin. He admitted it was an impressive achievement for Obama to be "airborn" for four years on celebrity alone, but now he was losing altitude and Palin was supplanting him at his own game. "With her narrative, her persona, her charisma carrying the McCain campaign to places it has never been and by all logic has no right to be, she's pulling an Obama. But her job is easier. She only has to remain airborne for seven more weeks. Obama maintained altitude for an astonishing four years." Then Palin crashed and burned as soon as she had to answer substantive policy questions while Obama persisted. And Krauthammer changed his tune, acknowledging that "Like Palin, he's a rookie, but in his 19 months on the national stage he has achieved fluency in areas in which he has no experience. In the foreign policy debate with McCain, as in his July news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama held his own -- fluid, familiar and therefore plausibly presidential." No one could say that about Sarah Palin.

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