AUTHOR'S NOTE: I WILL BE LIVE-BLOGGING THE VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE STARTING AT 9:00PM, EASTERN TIME, THURSDAY OCTOBER 2.
As the appointed hour of what surely has to be the most anticipated Vice Presidential debate in history fast approaches, one question on this author's mind is whether anyone remembers how nervous we were all supposed to be about the gaffe-potential coming from Joe Biden. As noted previously in this column, it seems like a very long time ago indeed when Biden was the man for whose extemporaneous remarks we all caught ourselves waiting with held breath. Obviously the pre-game talk surrounding this debate is all about Sarah Palin--though unfortunately for Senator McCain, this is not for the same reason that it was on the day he picked her, or the day most of a week later when she gave her rousingly venomous and willfully counterfactual convention speech.
No, these days the talk is all about just how bad the event might ultimately turn out to be, not just for her but for the slender remaining electoral chances of her boss. In less than a week, Governor Palin has gone from admitting that she can't cite a single working example of McCain's newfound regulatory credential, to dispensing a long-winded and unintelligable monologue on Alaska's proximity to Russia, to contradicting her boss on Pakistan, to being linked to improper receipt of cash gifts while Mayor of Wasilla, to being called upon by CNN Centrist Jack Cafferty and National Review Columnist Kathleen Parker to remove herself from the ticket, to being accused in her own state, by legislators of her own party, of trying to stonewall their investigation into her dismissal of the state's Public Safety Commissioner.
And then, shortly after the hemorrhage on Wall Street this past Monday, the McCain team quietly let slip that there were two additional segments of the Governor's interview with Katie Couric, and that these could be expected to be perhaps even more embarrassing to their candidates than the first pair had been last week--something which, frankly, I hadn't thought was possible. The third segment has now aired, and in it Ms. Palin finds herself unable to cite a single Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade. She is familiar with a great many such decisions, she asks us to believe--she just can't name one. The fourth segment has not yet aired, but in the meantime a leaked clip from that final installment shows Palin strolling with Couric behind the stage at a campaign event, whereupon Couric asks Palin what sources of print media she consults regularly. The answer? You guessed it: She routinely reads them all, she claims, but when pressed she cannot name a single print media source. Not one. Not the New York Times, not Life Magazine, not The London Daily Mirror. Nothing.
As if the McCain campaign needed a second ring to this horror-circus right now, the rumors about their own internal assessment of Palin have taken on a newsworthyness all its own--with unnamed insiders fretting about the likelihood that the debate will end disastrously, to an extent and with an urgency that no one dared bring to the same question about Dan Quayle, way back in '88. Meanwhile, Senator McCain himself is growing even more visibly testy than he's been acting for months already, as the questions about his choice of doubles-partner get more and more pointed and more and more prevalent in his dealings with the press. In a taped meeting yesterday with the Editorial Board of the Des Moines Register (and, entirely by the way, Mike Murphy has a right-wing commentary about the insanity of his wayward candidate even being in Iowa, at this point in the campaign), Mr. McCain became so visibly frustrated with the questions he was fielding about Palin that at some point it became less than wholly obvious that the matter wouldn't come to blows.
Clearly the bloom is off the rose, and Governor Palin is largely and personally to blame. Her truthfulness has been widely exposed as, well, as not very distinguished, and when cornered she tends to clutch and find herself blurting sentence-fragments that don't actually have anything to do with the question. There are still a great many people in this country who enthusiastically support her (or, perhaps more accurately, who support what she stands for), and for this reason it seems unlikely that she will not still be on the Republican ticket on November 4th--but scarcely anyone still expects her to scorch the paint from the walls in her head-to-head match-up with Senator Biden, the way they might have on the Wednesday of her coming-out party in Minneapolis.
Many of my fellow-columnists have argued that these are just the sorts of low expectations from which a candidate may be expected to benefit when assessing her performance after-the-fact: If she isn't expected to be able to finish a single sentence, so the argument goes, every single sentence she completes will earn her disproportionate victory-points with a persuadable audience. On the surface it's a solid argument in favor of expecting Palin to out-perform and, by that measure, possibly even "win."
The problem for the Alaska Governor is that not all low expectations are created equal. Candidates who've revealed a weakness in the oratory department are often blessed with favorable receptions after debates in which they've fought their loquaciously superior opponents to near draws, but these tend in my experience to be candidates who have other core strengths, have already cemented a lasting connection with the low-information voters in the middle, and, most importantly, don't actually scare people half to death every time they open their mouths.
Ms. Palin fits into a completely different category--one in which the low expectations will be all the more difficult to overcome, the lower they go. Each time she sinks herself deeper into the quicksand of her own incompetence, the public subconsciously raises, rather than lowers, its threshold for giving her another chance; she's just that bad. When Jack Cafferty calls you "pathetic" while sitting right next to Wolf Blitzer, and then shouts Blitzer down when he tries to temper the comment with a qualifier, you know you're playing from behind.
And yet, it occurred to me this morning that there's a way the McCain team could still make lemonade out of this bad sitcom in which they've found themselves. It's risky, but at this point it would seem to be the only option they have left: They could let her out of the box.
When someone is short on factual knowledge but long on ideology, they win debates by falling back on ideology for every answer. That hasn't worked for Palin because when she trusts her ideological instincts (e.g., Pakistan), she contradicts the campaign. So that's a minus, right? Well, only because of how they've played the campaign chemistry to date. If the surrogates had spent the first two weeks of Palin's inclusion on the team by saying, "Look, she's going to speak from her own heart, saying exactly what she thinks even if she disagrees with McCain, and the reason she's going to do that is because she's a strong woman and Senator McCain respects a fellow maverick," then they'd have been playing to their own strong suit (the whole "maverick" nonsense), and could have even woven-in some of that whole "no, you're the sexist, here" baloney that seemed to be playing at the convention.
If the past ten days have shown anything, it's that when the McCain people try the opposite tack--when they try to imbue Palin with high-enough command of the minutia of the campaign's position on each issue, blow-by-blow, it ends in catastrophe. Their only choice is to let her trust her instincts.
The risk, of course, is that her instincts are so ideologically different from McCain's (and those of the rest of planet earth), that she could easily trust herself a little too much and end up saying something that really, really, really does sink the tattered remnants of McCain's candidacy for President--but that's a risk that Team Crankypants can no longer pretend to neutralize by forcing Palin to be somebody she's not. The McCain campaign isn't just stuck with Palin on the ticket; they're stuck with Palin, the individual--her narrative, her style, her selling points and her demons. All Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates are human, it would seem, but some of them are more human than others. The McCain people have to recognize this fact in a far more strategic way if they are to have the tiniest chance of turning Thursday evening's event to their advantage.
("The Key Grip")
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Posted by Dave O'Gorman at 7:09 PM