On Sarah Palin, Tactics, and the Cynicism of John McCain

Yesterday, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee John McCain made his pick for his vice presidential running mate — Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Who?

To be frank, a week ago I hadn’t even heard of Sarah Palin. It’s my fault for not watching The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, I suppose.

Here’s a quick biography. Aged 44. Governor of Alaska for about a year and a half. Prior to that, she was the mayor of a town of approximately 7,000. Married to high school sweetheart. Five children, aged twenty to four months. Runner-up in the 1984 Miss Alaska contest. Holds a degree in journalism and was a television sports reporter. Played point guard for her high school basketball team. Policy positions — pro-life, pro-hunting, anti-gay rights, creationist, pro-ANWR drilling, no foreign policy background, no opinion on Iraq until about a year ago. Embroiled in a scandal involving improper firings of Alaska State Troopers.

Why Sarah Palin for Vice President?

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum (he of the “Axis of Evil” phraseology) admits that she appeals to the Republican anti-tax, anti-government, and evangelical bases, but that she fails on the test of being ready “on day one” — McCain has criticized Obama’s lack of experience, and now his argument now fails as Palin has even less experience than Obama. Palin would be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, and what in her biography indicates that she’s ready to assume the role? Anything?

Andrew Sullivan rightly notes that even if Palin’s executive experience as a mayor and a governor outweighs Obama’s experience as a community organizer, state Senator, and U.S. Senator, can anyone honestly believe that Obama’s victory over an entrenched, established candidate like Senator Hillary Clinton is eclipsed by anything Palin may have done? If it were Palin running an insurgent primary campaign against John McCain and Mitt Romney last year, would she have come away with the Republican nomination?

Cynically, I could argue that Palin was chosen solely for her identity politics. But I could just as easily note that Palin is immensely appealing to the Republicans’ evangelical base. Looking at what Palin brings to the table — her background, her story, her core beliefs, her very identity — we can try to divine from the tea leaves and understand the reasoning of her pick. Indeed, that’s precisely what news organizations and the blogosphere have done in the past twenty-four hours.

And then I realize.

That’s precisely why she was chosen.

The tactics used here are pure genius. Offer up a cypher, a sacrifical lamb to the media, in the hours after the triumph of Obama’s acceptance speech, and the media will take the bait. The story — Obama and Biden’s first campaign swing together — was drowned out as the chattering classes tried to figure out who Sarah Palin was, what her selection portends, even what John McCain’s thought processes were.

But dominating the news cycle for a day or two won’t win the campaign. Governor Palin won’t remain a cypher forever. She’s about to be deposed in her State Trooper scandal, and the report on that is due to be released on Halloween, right in advance of the election. Palin could well be a pick that does damage to the McCain campaign — and continues to do damage to the campaign. Surely, McCain didn’t pick Palin so he could lose in November?

Two possibilities occur to me on how Palin’s narrative will play out over the next two months.

One. McCain expects Palin to take fire from the media. She’s already taking fire from the left blogosphere, and it’s possible that she’ll begin to take fire from the right as well. (However, Red State loves her, so this clearly isn’t McCain’s Harriet Miers moment; Miers was despised from moment one.) More revelations into the Trooper story could force Palin to step aside in the next few days, “for the good of the Party.”

Andrew Sullivan writes that Palin is pretty much a “Fuck You” pick — only I disagree with Sullivan’s target. It’s been leaked in the past few days that McCain was looking hard at former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, but both were vetoed by the Republican establishment — Ridge, for his pro-choice abortion position, Lieberman because he’s not a Republican. McCain’s “fuck you” is clearly aimed squarely by McCain at the Republican establishment; they said he couldn’t have Tom Ridge, so he selected someone he knows won’t last, so that when she’s forced to withdraw “for the good of the party,” McCain can get who he really wants.

And this reaps McCain dividends. He gets to blast the media for crucifying the young governor of Alaska in the politics of personal destruction. He gets the Republican base to rally around him, because it looks like the “establishment” wants to destroy his campaign. McCain gets to play the martyr, and Palin is his sacrificial lamb. And as this story develops, it draws in the oxygen of the news cycle; how much coverage would Barack Obama and Joe Biden receive while this drama unfolded? McCain will see some damage, short-term, to his reputation, but he’ll reap long-term advantages by taking his opponents out of the media narrative while he gets to make another product launch — his new Vice Presidential pick.

Two. There is a chance that Palin weathers the storm.

McCain may be counting on the media to not dig too deeply. The media has been blasted by Elizabeth Edwards and Hillary Clinton in recent months for being unfair and actively hostile to certain campaigns, and McCain may believe that, already on notice, the media will treat Palin gently and with kid gloves so as to not open themselves up to criticism of perceived bias during the general election. McCain has always received a certain deference from the media — I think it was the media that kept McCain’s primary campaign alive long enough for McCain to triumph over Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney — and he may feel that he can count on that to shape his narrative.

If the press digs too deeply into Palin and her past, McCain will rail against the media for being merciless toward Palin. And because of that accusation, the press reacts defensively to any Democratic criticisms of Palin by making Obama, Biden, and their surrogates look like meanies. She exists to take the fire, and the McCain campaign ends up innoculated against press criticisms.

As a tactical matter, Palin’s pick as McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate is near brilliant. Will she win the election for McCain? That I don’t know.

What I do know is that she’s a pick that’s not aimed at me, just like McCain’s ad equating Obama to the Anti-Christ was not aimed at me. Palin doesn’t fit any narrative I understand, nor do I hear the Republican dog whistles they use in waging politics; I approach Palin from a paradigm of qualifications and experience and fitness for the position, while Republicans have mastered a different form of politics based around emotionalist appeals to the subconscious using code words and symbolism.

If I’m right, if McCain picked Palin to take the damage, then this is perhaps the most cynical Vice Presidential pick made in American history. A woman is going to take damage, playing on a stage she likely never planned to be near, as McCain’s sacrificial pawn.

If Palin bows out, as I imagine she will, McCain will take some short-term damage but reap long-term benefits that could put him in the White House — an enraged electorate, a Democratic ticket that finds itself cut out of the media narrative, and a better possibility of taking the White House.

If Palin remains in and McCain takes the White House through the use of dog whistle politics, Cthulhu help us all.

McCain may just pull this off.

ETA: Novelist David Mack expounds upon his own theories about Palin’s selection. Yes, Mack says that one thing I wrote about is bunk, but he also agrees with me that Palin’s pick kept Obama out of the news cycle in the wake of his acceptance speech. 🙂

In addition, Mack goes on to offer two ways in which Palin will function as a trap for the Obama campaign — experience and abortion. His explanations on both — and how to handle them — are well-reasoned.

Read it. Live it. Remember it.

7 thoughts on “On Sarah Palin, Tactics, and the Cynicism of John McCain

  1. She also lied that her youngest son is hers when it is actually one of her highschool daughters. There are pictures of her from this past Super Tuesday (feb. 08) she would have to be 7 months pregnant but is as trim and fit as a model. On the other hand, her daughter was suddenly taken out of school because she had mono for the next 4 months. Can you say SCANDALOUS. McCain has reduced our most sacred office into the front pages of tabloids. He shot from the hip and didn’t vet her.

  2. Quentin, that’s just a rumor.

    I don’t know if it’s true or not. To be honest, if it is true, I’d rather not know. The high school daughter is a minor, and she’s deserving of her privacy.

    There are a lot of things that Palin can be criticized and attacked on. The inner workings of her family? Not one of them.

    Yes, I know that Republicans would not be so considerate were the tables turned. Clinton’s impeachment ten years ago comes quickly to mind — “It’s okay if you’re a Republican.”

    But I don’t care which party her mother belongs to — a seventeen year old girl isn’t fair game.

    I’d rather see the Democrats win on the merits than by tearing open a family’s emotional secrets and wounds, if they even exist.

  3. I’m not ashamed of writing it, Matthew.

    Because we’re well into possiblility #2, now. Palin weathered the storm prior to the Republican National Convention, and McCain’s camp has already made it known that the media has been too harsh on Governor Palin. They’re limiting her media access, wanting “puff pieces” from major networks, and railing against the media.

    So, no, I’m absolutely not ashamed for writing any of this. Palin is a dangerous candidate, and her pick is so cynical that it should appall everyone.

  4. I prefer the term “progressive.” 😉

    To be completely honest, Matthew, I self-identify as a Republican. To be specific, I call myself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.” The problem is that Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t be welcome in his own party anymore. *shrug*

    I’m sorry that you feel that the facts about Palin are somehow fungible. I’m sorry that you feel the need to resort to name-calling. But what really annoys me, Matthew, is your inability to use an apostrophe. Oh, what are they teaching kids today… *sigh*

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