The Palin choice-8: The vetting process

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

John McCain’s campaign people surely must have been aware of the dangers of suddenly springing an unknown like Sarah Palin onto the national stage. If you are determined to do so, the way to minimize the chance of unpleasant surprises is to have a very long, exhaustive, and fairly open vetting process. But the trade-off for doing so is that you then cannot keep the process secret because too many people are involved and being questioned.

For reasons that are not clear to me, it seems like McCain wanted both a relative unknown and also for the announcement to be a big surprise, and these two things simply don’t go well together. He apparently wanted to “shake up the ticket”. The fact that Palin’s name was kept to just a handful of close advisors suggests that the vetting process was cursory and hurried. As The Politico reports:

They met for the first time last February at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Then, they spoke again — by phone — on Sunday while she was at the Alaska state fair and he was at home in Arizona. . . . The fact that McCain only spoke with Palin about the vice presidency for the first time on Sunday, and that he was seriously considering Lieberman until days ago, suggests just how hectic and improvisational his process was.

The New York Times fleshes out what went on behind the scenes:

Mr. McCain was getting advice that if he did not do something to shake up the race, his campaign would be stuck on a potentially losing trajectory.

With time running out — and as Mr. McCain discarded two safer choices, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, as too predictable — he turned to Ms. Palin. He had his first face-to-face interview with her on Thursday and offered her the job moments later. Advisers to Mr. Pawlenty and another of the finalists on Mr. McCain’s list described an intensive vetting process for those candidates that lasted one to two months.

“They didn’t seriously consider her until four or five days from the time she was picked, before she was asked, maybe the Thursday or Friday before,” said a Republican close to the campaign. “This was really kind of rushed at the end, because John didn’t get what he wanted. He wanted to do Joe or Ridge.

It appears that they are doing the real vetting after they made the selection.

Aides to Mr. McCain said they had a team on the ground in Alaska now to look more thoroughly into Ms. Palin’s background. A Republican with ties to the campaign said the team assigned to vet Ms. Palin in Alaska had not arrived there until Thursday, a day before Mr. McCain stunned the political world with his vice-presidential choice. The campaign was still calling Republican operatives as late as Sunday night asking them to go to Alaska to deal with the unexpected candidacy of Ms. Palin.

The shallow nature of the vetting process is becoming increasingly clear:

Representative Gail Phillips, a Republican and former speaker of the State House, said the widespread surprise in Alaska when Ms. Palin was named to the ticket made her wonder how intensively the McCain campaign had vetted her.

“I started calling around and asking, and I have not been able to find one person that was called,” Ms. Phillips said. “I called 30 to 40 people, political leaders, business leaders, community leaders. Not one of them had heard. Alaska is a very small community, we know people all over, but I haven’t found anybody who was asked anything.”

The current mayor of Wasilla, Dianne M. Keller, said she had not heard of any efforts to look into Ms. Palin’s background. And Randy Ruedrich, the state Republican Party chairman, said he knew nothing of any vetting that had been conducted.

State Senator Hollis French, a Democrat who is directing the ethics investigation, said that no one asked him about the allegations. “I heard not a word, not a single contact,” he said.

A number of Republicans said the McCain campaign had to some degree tied its hands in its effort to keep the selection process so secret.

We don’t know much yet about Palin and what we are learning is clearly not what the campaign intended as a first impression. But this decision and the process by which it was arrived tell us a lot about McCain and his campaign, and most of it is not good.

It has become a cliché to say that the first and most important decision that a president of president-to-be makes is the choice of the vice-president because he is putting the leadership of the country potentially in the hands of that person. Furthermore, the decision is his and his alone. It does not require consent of the US Senate and voters are not required to approve it during the primaries. So how that decision is made says something about how the candidate deliberates.

Perhaps the most pathetic attempts to put her in a positive light have been the statements that Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska is so close to Russia! For sheer inanity, that probably beats the other statement by McCain that “[Palin] knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America.” Really?

The way the Palin choice was made, irrespective of how well it turns out for McCain, indicates a certain recklessness that does not reflect well on his temperament. Cartoonist Mike Luckovich speculates on what the choice of Palin reveals about how McCain will select his cabinet.

It has become increasingly clear that the McCain camp is banking on the American public being stupid.

POST SCRIPT: How Palin was really selected (language advisory)

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