Seriousness

There’s really a lot that’s interesting in this New York Times feature on the various and always changing iterations of the McCain campaign, but its look at the selection of Sarah Palin is striking for just how closely it adheres to the popular notion that she was merely a political pick.

The meeting carried on without Schmidt or Rick Davis uttering an opinion about Palin. Few in the room were aware that the two had been speaking to each other about Palin for some time now. Davis was with McCain when the two met Palin for the first time, at a reception at the National Governors Association winter meeting in February, in the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Washington. It had not escaped McCain’s attention that Palin had blasted through the oleaginous Alaska network dominated by Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens, much in the same manner that McCain saw himself doing when he was a young congressman. Newt Gingrich and others had spoken of Palin as a rising star. Davis saw something else in Palin — namely, a way to re-establish the maverick persona McCain had lost while wedding himself to Bush’s war. A female running mate might also pick off some disaffected Hillary Clinton voters.

After that first brief meeting, Davis remained in discreet but frequent contact with Palin and her staff — gathering tapes of speeches and interviews, as he was doing with all potential vice-presidential candidates. One tape in particular struck Davis as arresting: an interview with Palin and Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona Democrat, on “The Charlie Rose Show” that was shown in October 2007. Reviewing the tape, it didn’t concern Davis that Palin seemed out of her depth on health-care issues or that, when asked to name her favorite candidate among the Republican field, she said, “I’m undecided.” What he liked was how she stuck to her pet issues — energy independence and ethics reform — and thereby refused to let Rose manage the interview. This was the case throughout all of the Palin footage. Consistency. Confidence. And . . . well, look at her. A friend had said to Davis: “The way you pick a vice president is, you get a frame of Time magazine, and you put the pictures of the people in that frame. You look at who fits that frame best — that’s your V. P.”

Schmidt, to whom Davis quietly supplied the Palin footage, agreed. Neither man apparently saw her lack of familiarity with major national or international issues as a serious liability. Instead, well before McCain made his selection, his chief strategist and his campaign manager both concluded that Sarah Palin would be the most dynamic pick. Despite McInturff’s encouraging new numbers, it remained their conviction that in this ominous election cycle, a Republican presidential candidate could not afford to play it safe. Picking Palin would upend the chessboard; it was a maverick type of move. McCain, the former Navy pilot, loved that sort of thing. Then again, he also loved familiarity — the swashbuckling camaraderie with his longtime staff members, the P.O.W. band of brothers who frequently rode the bus and popped up at his campaign events, the Sedona ranch where he unwound and grilled wagonloads of meat. By contrast, McCain had barely met Palin.

The purely political rationale behind many of the campaign’s decisions is the salient theme of the piece, and underscores why the McCain campaign has largely foundered: the Republicans don’t have the luxury of running a campaign as though aesthetics were the only consideration. Iraq has been exposed as a mistake, ballooning health care costs threaten longterm financial stability, and median household income hasn’t grown in eight years. Without addressing those issues in a serious manner, and moreover picking a Vice-President who virtually proves John McCain isn’t serious about solving our country’s problems, no amount of “storytelling” will secure John McCain the presidency.

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