Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

  Is it the beginning of the end for John McCain?

Are Republican strategists panicking yet? If not, they should be. The rapid unraveling of John McCain's campaign with his selection of a running mate has many of the hallmarks of a political tipping point.

For starters, McCain may decide he has to ask Palin to step aside. If he doesn't, the fallout will continue to dog his campaign. If he does, it's an admission that he blundered. For now, McCain is trying to deny there's a problem.

"I just want to repeat again how excited I am to have Sarah Palin, the great governor of Alaska, as my running mate."

I'm reminded strongly of the days just before George McGovern's first VP choice, Thomas Eagleton, had to withdraw in August 1972. He too was a last minute pick and poorly vetted. At the time, I believe the conventional wisdom was that the episode had doomed McGovern's faltering candidacy.

Even if McGovern decides to keep Eagleton after all, the net effect has been to make McGovern look either devious or weak or both, or at the most charitable, indecisive.

The problem of what to do about Palin can't be circumvented or softened. No matter what McCain does, he'll make matters worse. But that's only the most obvious damage his selection did to his chances this November.

The lack of adequate vetting brings with it a tangle of interrelated political problems. Most obviously, McCain's staff feel obliged to state repeatedly that Palin was well vetted and now the candidate himself is having to do so.

Asked about whether Palin's background was thoroughly checked out before he selected her, McCain told reporters in Philadelphia: "The vetting process was completely thorough and I'm grateful for the results."

It's obviously not true. McCain will make himself an object of derision the longer he sticks with that story. Heck, people can see for themselves how ill prepared McCain's campaign was for this choice. The "About Governor Palin" at McCain's website still has nothing more than a few photos and the text of her inaugural speech last Friday in Dayton. There isn't even a thumbnail bio for her.

In addition, McCain's false assurances highlight the fact that the inadequate vetting was done (as I remarked yesterday) merely in order for McCain to be able to unveil a surprise pick. Take this partial explanation for cutting corners, offered by McCain's chief vetter and Washington insider, Arthur Culvahouse.

For Palin specifically, the [McCain vetting] team studied online archives of the state's largest newspapers, including the Anchorage Daily News, but didn't request paper archives for Palin's hometown newspaper for fear the secret review would become public.

In other words, McCain was determined to manipulate journalists and the public. He wanted everybody to focus on his campaign for a few days (and take the limelight away from his rival). For this, he was willing to sacrifice the overriding national interest in having a carefully vetted vice president.

Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., the lawyer who conducted the review, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that Palin underwent a "full and complete" examination before McCain chose her. Asked whether everything that came up as a possible red flag during the review already has been made public, Culvahouse said: "I think so. Yeah, I think so. Correct."

Despite that very tentative assertion, new and embarrassing revelations about Sarah Palin likely will continue to drip out in public. For example, there's the discovery that she had been a member of the secessionist Alaska Independent Party until she became mayor of Wasilla. Or the fact that, far from being an opponent of earmarks, she initially championed the Stevens' earmark for the "Bridge to Nowhere" (despite her false claim in her inaugural speech that she opposed it). Or the fact that as mayor of Wasilla she hired a lobbyist who gained fully $27 million in earmarks for the small town between 2000 and 2002.

Indeed the traditional media (as well as bloggers) are suddenly much more energized by having to do the job of vetting Palin that McCain did so poorly. McCain has called the media "my base", and he relied upon them for years to pass over or at least downplay all manner of his political problems and indiscretions out of a sense of loyalty or camaraderie with his hale-fellow act. Indeed, in Arizona there's only a single major newspaper that has reported on McCain's career at all critically. In other words, he's led a pampered and sheltered life politically. As a result, he has tended to view any serious digging into his record as an act of hostility if not betrayal by reporters. Several times this year McCain has lashed out at reporters who were merely doing their job – and not especially aggressively, either. His relations with the traveling press deteriorated badly early this summer when he began his scorched earth campaign against Barack Obama. He even stopped sitting with reporters on his campaign plane. Now the bad feelings are bound to intensify as McCain sours on reporters for pushing his campaign to the brink. The spiral downward has already begun with increasingly harsh accusations and nasty comments about journalists covering him. Here is the latest:

McCain's campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, yesterday lashed out at what he deemed "offensive" and "demeaning" coverage and questions from reporters after McCain's running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, confirmed her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

"It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists," Schmidt said at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Bloomberg article several well-known recent examples of rude, insulting, and petulant treatment of reporters by McCain and his top staff. It's very difficult to climb back out of the hole of bad media relations once you've created it. The temptation is always to keep digging. At this point, even if McCain abandons Sarah Palin the damage has been done.

Another looming problem is the one of rats on a sinking ship. So few top Republicans know much of anything about Palin or were consulted or briefed on McCain's decision that they don't know what to say in public. Additionally, they can't surmise whether McCain will drop Palin from the ticket so they may not want to rush too eagerly to her defense. Many are deciding the best course is to dodge questions.

Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, was asked Monday as he walked through the Xcel Center in St. Paul if he was satisfied with Palin's vetting. "I'm not gonna get into that," he said.

And obviously, few of McCain's staff will want to take the blame for this screw up. For example, Arthur Culvahouse made sure in his interview with AP reporter Liz Sidoti that he cleared himself of any allegations of haste or sloppiness. He did as much vetting of Palin as possible, he said, under the circumstances created by McCain.

For Palin specifically, the team studied online archives of the state's largest newspapers, including the Anchorage Daily News, but didn't request paper archives for Palin's hometown newspaper for fear the secret review would become public...

Culvahouse said he asked follow-up questions, and "spent a lot of time with her lawyer" on the matter.

"We came out of it knowing all that we could know at the time," he said.

It's a very bad sign for a presidential campaign when top staff begin to try to build for themselves in public some distance from decisions already made. As we saw for example with Hillary Clinton's campaign early in 2008, it can be a symptom of irreconcilable internal divisions or, indeed, panic.

Meanwhile, most truly persuadable voters were underwhelmed at the announcement of McCain's running mate. The more we learn about Sarah Palin, the more reasons voters have to become turned off. Most conservatives so far seem to be trying to put on a brave face, but not everyone has adopted the Republican Party line.

Sherry Whistine, a Republican conservative blogger from Palin's home area of Wasilla, said that she can't believe how Palin could accept the nomination knowing that doing so would shine a spotlight on her daughter.

In fact evangelicals, the primary target of Palin's nomination, may be especially prone for their own reasons to question Palin's judgment as the campaign proceeds.

Sarah Robertson, a mother of four from Kennebunk, Me., who was one of the few evangelical Christians interviewed to criticize Ms. Palin, said: “A mother of a 4-month-old infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set.”

Even if McCain is unlikely to lose much of his conservative base, it may not be enthusiastic enough to rally his campaign. Most of McCain's other problems associated with the Palin selection are the kind that are difficult to turn around once they begin to take hold.

What may be worse, in the end, is that Palin's relative youth and indisputable lack of experience (i) undermine the only effective line of attack McCain has had against Obama, (ii) reflect poorly on McCain's judgment and ability, something he'd wanted to be able to run on, and (iii) draw attention to McCain's age and poor health, which are a major liability for him especially among the older voters who form the base of his support. There is no way to buff Palin up between September and November. She is the lightweight she seems to be. It's certainly going to be much harder now to dispel fears about McCain's judgment and age.

All in all, this could be the beginning of the end for McCain's chances at the presidency.

crossposted at

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