Wednesday, September 03, 2008

McCain’s high risk choice of Palin - worth the cost?

McCain's choice of Sarah Palin for Republican Veep candidate meets a major need in the McCain campaign for President. Is the choice going to be worth what it costs him?

McCain's problem is that he has to attract and energize Bush's base of voters to be elected, but at the same time he has to avoid being connected to the immensely unpopular President Bush. McCain's public persona as a maverick Republican takes care of the second part of the problem. But McCain is still "Old Washington" as well as being age 72 and looking like it. In spite of his maverick persona, McCain is still part of the problem. He didn't energize any particular groups of Republicans in the primaries; he just outlasted all the other candidates as they each showed themselves unable to unify the party behind them or self-destructed. What does McCain do about the problem of getting the Republican Party to unify behind him? He hasn't done much since he because the presumptive choice as Republican candidate last March. The choice of a vice Presidential nominee was McCain's last real chance to make a difference.

The Democratic Primary provided a lot of guidance. Two key issues exposed by the long Democratic Primary were change and mobilizing women as a separate political force. Clinton's effort to run on her experience and organization instead of getting on the "change" bandwagon early was a key element in her defeat. But her mobilization of women as a separate political force was key to the close and lengthy race between her and Obama.

Since John McCain has needed to do something to transform his campaign in a way that would mobilize Republican base he took clear note of the change and the year of the woman issues as he decided who his running mate would be. The other recently discussed possibilities - Joe Lieberman, Tim Pawlenty, Tom Ridge and George Romney - offered no real solution to McCain's problems. All any of them offered was a symbol that McCain was going to promise serious, rational and considered governance once he was elected. None of them did anything to actually win the Presidency, and McCain is losing this campaign. His Veep pick needed to do something radical to change the dynamic.

The choice of the young, exciting and telegenic Governor Sarah Palin certainly offered that possibility. Mrs. Palin appears to come alive in the limelight. It loves her and she clearly loves the attention. In addition to her rather exciting persona, Mrs. Palin is also a strong religious fundamentalist who is very attractive to the social conservative Republicans. Her reputation of taking on the Alaska Republican political establishment makes her similarly attractive to the Libertarian Republicans. For the Republican Party McCain's choice of Palin is a unifying choice as well as an energizing one. It doesn't hurt that she was one of a large field of candidates for governor who went on to defeat a sitting governor. She literally came out of nowhere to win the governorship of Alaska.

This is what John McCain was considering when he met Mrs. Palin last Thursday for the third time. The New York Times described McCain's typical decision-making process this way:
At the very least, the process reflects Mr. McCain’s history of making fast, instinctive and sometimes risky decisions. “I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can,” Mr. McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, “Worth the Fighting For.” “Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.”
This is a very appropriate decision-making process for a fighter pilot in combat when the premium is on making a fast decision and taking rapid action. But it runs the risk of overlooking very important factors. Did McCain overlook important factors in vetting Mrs. Palin, or just consider them them unimportant compared to the benefits?

A key consideration in the Friday announcement of Sarah Palin was that the announcement needed to be a big surprise to the media so that it could suck the media "oxygen" up from Obama's acceptance speech Thursday night. So McCain kept the vetting process in a very small group and kept it secret from everyone else even in the campaign. The McCain camp did achieve surprise, but the process also meant that there was no possibility of floating a trial balloon in the media well in advance and seeing if Mrs. Palin could survive intense media scrutiny. That strategy depended on the vetting individuals doing a complete job. But if it was incomplete, there was no way for those doing the vetting to be warned they were missing important items. It is now clear that the vetting was quite abbreviated. It may have been limited to social conservatives who gave her high marks.

Once the Sarah Palin surprise was sprung on the media, the political reporters jumped on her history and reputation. The surprise worked. There has been no discussion of Obama's great acceptance speech since Friday, and the core Republicans have quickly circled the wagons in her support. But at the same time we have had a new unpleasant surprise each day about Sarah Palin since Friday.

One question is whether the result of the intense media focus will be to "Quaylify" Sarah Palin, and if they do, whether it will cause a backlash among Republicans against the media. Neither of those questions are very important. Her appointment as McCain's veep has both energized and unified the Republican base. It is unlikely to bring in independents and it will certainly not bring in Democrats.

Another question is whether all the negative surprises are over and whether she can survive them. This question will be dealt with tonight in her acceptance speech. Mrs. Palin seems quite comfortable dealing with the media so the question is whether she can avoid appearing as an intellectual lightweight outside of formal speech-giving situations. After tonight the vice Presidential Debate will be her biggest test.

The more important question is what the choice and announcement of Sarah Palin means for the McCain image. It already very clearly shows that in spite of his maverick image, McCain has surrendered all independence on important matters to the Republican social conservatives. McCain is no moderate. He is relentlessly a right-wing extremist. The Palin decision also clearly demonstrates that John McCain is every bit as much of a "gut-level" decision maker as George W. Bush and that he does not consider the downside risk of the choices he makes any more than Bush ever has. Until now the media has not dealt with that issue, but the Palin decision exposes it to scrutiny and question.

Many of us are also aware that McCain has staffed his campaign with highly pro-war NeoCons and free-market deregulation economists, but this has not gotten broad traction is shaking McCain's moderate image. It is possible that the very high visibility of Sarah Palin will expose McCain's debt to the Republican social conservatives. This is also a downside risk that McCain accepted when he chose her as his running mate. It appears he was either willing to accept that risk or was unaware of it. It would be difficult to determine which, but either way it exposes how desperate McCain is to become competitive in the last two months of this campaign.

While Mrs. Palin provides a lot of benefit to John McCain's campaign for the Presidency, whether the costs of choosing her are worth the benefits she provides is a question that will be at the top of the issues discussed for the next two months. She exposes a lot of McCain's weaknesses as a candidate to very intense questioning.

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