Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Well, So Much for Experience

For all the ranting that has gone on about Sarah Palin--including, you may have noticed, in this very forum--the true political casualty of the weekend must surely be John McCain's exclusive claims to the mantle of good Presidential judgment.

Many of us had been wondering for some time how a man of such notoriously volcanic temper and unfettered impulses--a man who is described by his closest surrogates, with a straight face, as both a "maverick" and as the sole bearer of sound experience in this race--could have gotten away with so much impunity for so long, under the general heading of ironic campaign slogans. And that was even before we suffered through that full, plugs-out test of our blood pressures as we sat before TV screens and computer monitors on Friday and listened to Old Man POW and Annie Yokely describe themselves as reformers. Then again, that's the national Republican playbook in a nutshell, isn't it? Impunity?

Oh, and in case you've been following trivial things like hurricanes, the news to come out of the Palin camp this weekend is that she is the parent of an unwed teen mother, has hired an attorney in the abuse-of-power case in her home state, has a drunk-driver for a husband, supported the bridge-to-nowhere that she took credit on Friday for opposing, and until fairly recently belonged to a secessionist political party that called for an Alaska that wasn't even in the country, let well enough alone "putting it first."

The thing is, this election wasn't supposed to be about Sarah Palin; that wasn't in the script. It was supposed to be about Barack Obama. The spring and summer message from McCain and his surrogates, disciplined and, I hate to say it, largely effective, was that the vast persuadable middle in this country should be afraid of Barack Obama--for any number of reasons, most notably his lack of experience. He's impulsive, the argument went with chilling consistency. He's egocentric, he's a celebrity, you don't want someone like that handling a three-A.M. phone call.

Today the self-described independents favor Mr. Obama by fifteen points, and not all of that margin can be easily explained away as a convention bounce--first and foremost because it consists of data collected after McCain's supposed neutralization of that bounce, in announcing Palin. The Democratic answer to the Palin pick was still in the "let's ignore her completely" phase, and already persuadable voters up the deep and juicy middle of the electorate were coming on their own to the conclusion that the Democrats have only now settled-on as their takeaway from the weekend: That it is Mr. McCain, not Mr. Obama, who has spectacularly mishandled his three-A.M. phone call moment. That it took so long for a guy who once famously hoisted a diplomat out of his chair by his necktie, to finally be called-out for the ridiculousness of calling the other guy rash, is for us libbos to grit our teeth over in silence--the point is, it's coming across now.

Specifically, there is this news, first reported in this morning's LA Times, that Senator McCain relied on a single, relatively short Google internet search to vet his choice of Sarah Palin. There were no phone calls, there was no review of Palin's tax records or other personal documents, no interviews with people in a position to know what needed to be known. Indeed the article goes on to quote senior McCain campaign officials as saying that Palin hadn't even been mentioned as a potential choice, as recently as last week. What appears to have happened, despite The Key Grip's best attempts to make jokes about it, is precisely that McCain strolled downstairs and announced a decision he had arrived at with the beneficial counsel of a grand-total of no one.

Meanwhile, the campaign insiders are in full damage-control mode, literally hoping on the record that Palin carries with her no further surprises, and reverting to a well-tested (if unfamiliar to McCain) Republican tactic of responding to every bad news cycle by attacking the media. From here, things could get better for McCain and this very public vetting of him: for starters, Ms. Palin will deliver a speech on Wednesday evening that, if not Biden's match in stirring sentiment or for that matter in personal connection, will no doubt match Biden's in its ability to have the fringe members of her party standing on chairs and screaming for more. That is assuming, of course, that she lasts that long.

But unfortunately for McCain, beyond that pre-arranged bounce in Palin's favorables, the news appears to be considerably less rosy. The McCain people themselves have dispatched a legion of professional vetters to Alaska after the fact, presumably out of a desire to at least know what the next bombshell will be before it lands squarely in their laps, and the news media--sensing an opening to make ratings hay without attacking Palin's parenting skills--are starting to press the McCain people on the chronology of this decision.

Worst of all, McCain is, to all intents and purposes, stuck with Palin, now, regardless of how much worse things get. Dumping her would spell full and blood-lustful revolt within his own party, to say nothing of the monumental setback it would signal in McCain's withering mantle to the claim of leadership. And then, of course, he'd have to find someone else willing to define themselves for the next two months as McCain's second choice for the job. If history teaches us nothing else, it's that a withdrawn VP candidate in the midst of a fall election does not win a candidate a great number of electoral votes, come November. For now, McCain and his people will do the only thing that they can: hunker down and hope that the news gets better for them, very, very quickly.

And if anything about these most recent turns is particularly scary, it's that this very strategy has worked for Mr. McCain, before.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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