Like almost everyone, I was stunned by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. And like them, I am wondering which of the two extreme views of her nomination is true: that she is a bold choice that will give McCain victory in November or that she is terrible pick that will end up being a millstone around his neck and send him spiraling down to a defeat of historic proportions.
There has, of course, been enormous attention to this story. While I don’t usually pay too much attention to the personalities of politics, preferring to focus on a few issues that are important to me, the exceptional nature of the choice has sucked me into the discussion along with everyone else, mainly to try and figure out what this pick reveals about McCain.
Since I knew I would traveling over the Labor Day weekend and would not have my laptop or internet access, I wrote most of my coming posts last Friday, the day on which her selection was announced, and Saturday morning. While driving during the long weekend, I only heard news headlines about the progress of hurricane Gustav and nothing about Palin, so I have had to time to mull over my initial reactions to McCain’s decision. And my initial reaction that this was a bad choice has solidified.
(As is my usual style, whenever I feel that I need multiple posts to cover a topic, in order to create a coherent narrative, I first write out a skeletal outline of the entire series, which is then fleshed out, updated, polished, and edited before each daily posting. I now wonder if Palin might withdraw from the race even before my series ends next week, so I am preempting the completion of my series on the politics of food until the Palin series is over. That is how bad I think this development is for the Republican ticket.)
There are definitely many positives to her choice. But the problem is that each of those positives, aimed at achieving a particular result, are more than cancelled out by huge negatives that will prevent that result being achieved. The calculations involved are fairly obvious. So the question of interest is how McCain and his team did the same sums that I did and came out with a much different answer. What did they think was so positive about her that would compensate for these negatives?
Palin’s name was not unknown to me. I had heard of her before this and had also heard the chatter that she was on his short list of candidates. But I had not given much credence to those reports because I first learned of her some time ago in the context of articles on the investigations into charges of corruption and abuse of power in Alaskan politics, highlighting senator Ted Stevens but also others including her. I knew that she and her husband were in the midst of a situation in which she was alleged as governor of the state to have exerted undue influence to get her brother-in-law (who was mired in a messy custody battle with her sister) fired from his job as a state trooper, going to the extent even of firing her Public Safety Commissioner because he did not carry out her wishes. Josh Marshall has an excellent synopsis of what has become called, inevitably, ‘troopergate’.
There are reports that she is to be deposed in that court case soon and that she has claimed executive privilege to not release certain records to investigators and may face subpoenas as a result. She has hired a private lawyer to look after her interests, a sign that she may fear prosecution for actions that fall outside her official prerogatives.
Because of all this, I did not take her chances seriously. And this was even before I returned home on Tuesday morning, checked the news, and discovered that the whole thing had blown up into a full-throated soap opera. I thought that she was put on the list of candidates for the same reason that many such names are usually leaked, to satisfy narrow constituencies that their interests are being considered. I figured that McCain would be foolish to pick someone slap in the middle of being investigated for abuse of power. Why take on that aggravation when there are so many other people who won’t come with all that baggage?
Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.
I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.
Next: The experience question
POST SCRIPT: Political humor