McCain couldn't help acting on impulse
Not one of McCain's inner circle argued for Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 07/09/2008 | 00:00
Angry, frustrated, perhaps a little panicked, John McCain took a gamble, and it worked. For a couple of days the choice of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as Republican vice presidential nominee seemed a disaster. Then -- with a deep knowledge of the audience before her -- Palin strode on stage, wowed the Republican faithful and rescued McCain.
What damage might have been done, in the process, is another day's work.
John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, was chewing the fat with reporters from the Washington Post. There were just hours before Palin was due to deliver her make-or-break speech at the Republican Convention. Davis said that McCain's staff had prepared a speech for the vice presidential nominee, but they hadn't anticipated that McCain would choose a woman. And the speech, designed to mock and attack Barack Obama, was "very masculine". Speechwriter Matthew Scully had to hurriedly huddle with Palin, to reconfigure and feminise the speech. The masculine words had lipstick added.
McCain had wanted Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge as his vice president. But the Obama surge left the Republicans biting their nails. Back in 2004, George Bush wasn't too popular. Very deliberately, his strategists stoked up the party's conservative religious base. Anger at alleged Democratic plans to restrict gun ownership and allow gays marry roused the base from their apathy and got Bush re-elected.
It's hard to pull that trick a second time. The Republicans have been consistently behind in the polls. Lieberman and Ridge are pro-choice on abortion. The party bigshots wouldn't have it. Neither of the older men would arouse the base. And they did nothing to counter Obama's image of change.
The choice of Sarah Palin was last-minute, with only cursory vetting of her background. Not one of McCain's inner circle argued for her selection from the shortlist of six. She was selected by McCain apparently on impulse.
McCain painted her as a fellow "maverick", opposed to the Washington elite, a fighter against the "earmarking" and "pork barrel" habits of politicians who waste public money.
Within hours, the media was digging. It emerged that Palin was under investigation for allegedly using the weight of her governor's office to sack an official who wouldn't get rid of a state trooper who was divorcing Palin's sister.
McCain was delighted that Palin opposed the infamous Alaskan 'Bridge to Nowhere', which threatened to squander hundreds of millions of dollars to provide local political advantage to an allegedly crooked senator. And she did oppose it -- but only after she'd initially supported it and the bridge project had faltered (the allegedly crooked senator is now under indictment).
It then turned out that Palin hired lobbyists to try to win millions in federal funds for local projects. A note turned up, outlining her success in winning such funds, with Palin's triumphant handwritten addition: "We did well!"
Potentially most damaging of all, there was a video address from Governor Palin to the 2008 conference of the Alaskan Independence Party. And a video from a private AIP meeting, where they talked of her membership of the AIP in the 1990s, and how she joined the Republicans because "you have to go along to get along".
The AIP is a nasty little right-wing anti-American outfit. McCain's people immediately denied Palin had ever been a member. It later emerged that her husband Todd was a registered member of the AIP until 2002. (One can only imagine the hullabaloo if Michelle Obama was found to have been a member of a black independence party up to six years ago.)
The National Enquirer, fresh from outing John Edwards's affair, sent its people to Alaska. They discovered that Palin's oldest daughter was pregnant at 17. The McCain camp hurriedly released the information, before the tabloid could publish.
The Enquirer had other allegations about Palin and about her response to the pregnancy, but none are substantiated or particularly relevant.
The phoniness of her supposed defence of public money, her alleged abuse of power and her relationship to a very dodgy anti-American outfit, remain relevant and might yet cause her problems. However, the Republican response has been masterly. They've brought Palin and her family, including her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, on stage, front and centre. A photo op was arranged, on an airport tarmac, as McCain met the two.
The strategy seems to be to bring Palin's family out front, yet to demand that the media stop intruding on the children. The hope may be that media probing of Palin's background can be conflated with media intrusion into her daughter's life -- and the consequent Republican anger will oblige the media to back off.
Obama is ahead with blacks and Hispanics. He's doing well with younger whites, but older whites are slower to convince, and he needs them. Sarah Palin may seem like an oddity to many outside the USA -- a loving mom waving an automatic rifle. But the mix of patriotism and religion rings bells in the Republican base -- the invasion of Iraq, Palin says, was "a task that is from God". Hallelujah.
Already she has solidified the base behind her, particularly women. On the other hand, the party's blithe acceptance of her daughter's unwed pregnancy, with the baby's father chewing gum and waving from the convention stage, has outraged traditional social conservatives. Some may never vote for Obama, but they may simply stay home.
They are a minority of a minority. Much more serious is Palin and McCain's shrill denunciation of the media. For a long time, reporters pampered McCain. Of late, he's grown cranky with them.
In one notorious interview with reporters from Time magazine, he was unnecessarily rude and belligerent, as though he'd lost control of his long known but usually concealed petulance. Some media will curl up under the browbeating. Others -- including conservative journalists -- are openly seething. This could have consequences.
The use of Palin to grab discontented Hillary supporters was blatant and, for some, insulting, and may backfire. The nomination of the governor of a state with about half the population of greater Dublin has undercut the strategy of depicting Obama as inexperienced.
However, 37 million Americans watched the Palin speech, as many as watched Obama. She has successfully taken the focus away from the panic which led to her appointment and towards her personality. And if she hasn't won over the disappointed supporters of Hillary Clinton -- the hell with them. The Republican base loves her, they are now more likely to come out to vote for McCain -- so she has achieved half of what McCain hoped.
In the days after her nomination, Intrade, an internet betting site based in Dublin and selling to Americans, offered an 18 per cent chance that she would be withdrawn. After the speech, the price plummeted -- by Friday it was barely seven per cent and falling.
Republican deregulation caused the credit crisis, their incompetence lost New Orleans and ran up trillions in debt, their mad global strategy led to the invasion of Iraq and the squandering of hundreds of thousands of lives. Still, John McCain has a plausible chance at victory, his campaign reinvigorated by Sarah Palin.
McCain relentlessly, shamelessly, flogs his prisoner of war story. He promises "change", he denounces Washington. Yet, his party has controlled the White House since 2001. His party controlled Congress from 1994 to 2007. He's 26 years in Congress, and he voted with Bush more than 90 per cent of the time. And yet he somehow gets away with claiming to be a maverick.
The man who joked that he'd like to "bomb-bomb Iran", has a notorious temper. Should he win the White House and feel obliged to shed blood in order to show his toughness, he now has a sidekick capable of movingly leading the nation in prayer for victory.
An interesting two months coming up.