Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Worst Thing About the Sarah Palin Blunder

The French diplomat Talleyrand was famous for pooh poohing ethics in relation to Napoleon by claiming that one of the emperor's decision was "worse than a crime, it's a blunder."

Today, recovering Republican strategist Matthew Dowd argues that John McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin was mostly a crime of putting politics before country:
Dowd proclaimed that, in his heart of hearts, McCain knew he put the country at risk with his VP choice and that he would "have to live" with that fact for the rest of his career.

Of course, nominating Sarah Palin to be vice-president would be a crime if McCain won. Given the report on the Troopergate scandal in Alaska, it looks less and less like Palin is fit to be the governor of a small state let alone have any national responsibility.

The Palin nomination is also a crime against the Republican Party's future. Palin is a singularly reckless and partisan right-winger whose showmanship makes her a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 (whether McCain wins or loses). But Sarah-mania is also a trap. As long as she's involved in national politics, Palin will be a very attractive figure for conservatives. Palin is also highly unpopular with non-conservatives that she could never win a national election. As a result, any Palin candidacy would tend to keep conservatives trapped in an ideological ghetto of their own.

But nominating Sarah Palin was also a blunder. And it was a blunder for several reasons.

First, the Palin hurt McCain because it put him on the defensive. The problem emerged even when McCain was ahead of Obama and Palin was enjoying popularity. Because Palin lacked much experience beyond Wasilla, Alaska, the McCain campaign first had to answer a wave of questions about her lack of experience. Then, there were succeeding waves of questions, first about her knowledge from the Gibson and Couric interviews and then her abuse of power in the Troopergate investigation.

The McCain campaign was on the offenseive during June and July with their attacks on Obama's celebrity status. But they've been playing defense ever since the Palin nomination.

Second, the Palin nomination cemented the idea that John McCain was running a gimmicky presidential campaign. Of course, McCain had already pulled lots of gimmicks ranging from his poverty tour of Appalachia, the challenge for Obama to travel with him to Iraq, the follow-up challenge to Iraq to do ten townhall meetings, and the nasty, race-baiting "Celeb" ads.

But when John McCain tabbed Sarah Palin as his "stunt nomination," he set himself up for the "gimmicky candidate" narrative that bit him during the financial meltdown. The Wall Street crisis would have played against McCain as a Republican in any case. It played much worse against him because all of his manuevers have been seen as "gimmicks" and McCain was seen as a "gimmicky" candidate in a time of crisis. The idea of McCain as a gimmicky kind of guy began to take hold in the discussion over the Palin nomination and has been one of the cancers on his campaign ever since.

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