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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Real Story on the Palin Selection

The October 27, 2008 issue of The New Yorker contains a story by Jane Mayer entitled The Insiders which provides a more detailed summary of the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate. (#1) Die hard Republicans won't want to read it at all. Die hard Democrats may get some sort of train wreck schadenfreude from it. It's the undecided voters, the voters who aren't sure which party has come closer to recognizing the error of their ways and which party seems to be clinging to strategies that produced the current problems we face, who might get something out of the report.

The current established narrative for the rise of Sarah Palin from the obscurity of the frozen Alaska tundra to the hot lights of center stage in a Presidential campaign goes something like this:

1) relatively young woman advances from small town mayor to Alaska governor using "outsider" themes
2) relatively old Senator spends two years trying to convert from Republican Party loose cannon out of favor with its base to old-timey tax cuts and wedge issue Presidential front runner
3) the Senator manages to score the party nomination without truly securing the trust of the Republican base
4) despite nearly three months between securing the nomination and the convention, the nominee is unable to nail down a VP selection because the former Republican "outsider" has no friends on the "inside" of the Republican party and his only preference (Lieberman) is despised by the Republican base
5) with both the nominee and his party unable to find a single insider acceptable to both, McCain attempts to woo disaffected Hillary Clinton independents and revert back to "maverick" mode by choosing the relatively young Alaskan governor with a record as a "maverick"

If one believes that narrative and one views the latest polls on the overall race and specific polls about the drag Palin has become on the ticket, one would be likely to conclude the selection of Palin reflects horrendous political judgment on the part of John McCain. By implication, it might also reinforce a larger concern about McCain's tendencies to "go for broke" and make snap decisions. In this narrative, the core of the Republican Party had little input into the selection and was as surprised and initially concerned as America in general was, though they quickly warmed to Palin after seeing an initial spike in the polls for their ticket.

Mayer's story traces the events leading up to Palin's selection for the VP slot back to her election as Governor in Alaska. Upon taking the oath of office, a number of conservative writers and bloggers began beating the drum to consider her for the VP slot on the 2008 Republican ticket. Mayer cites writer Adam Brickley, who launched the Blogger site http://palinforvp.blogspot.com in February 2007, as a key force who got the buzz started. The idea was picked up by InstaPundit then The American Spectator.

Mayer also recounts the concerted efforts Palin herself made to raise her profile with the very "East coast media elites" she despises by meeting key conservative magazine columnists during stops on luxury cruises to Alaska in June 2007 sponsored by their publishers. Within the month, Bill Kristol was appearing on Fox News Sunday pushing Palin as a great political solution to securing women voters. By July 2007, The Weekly Standard put her on the cover with an "America's Most Popular Governor" story. In another comical anecdote, Mayer states that National Review writer Victor Hanson met with her and was impressed that she described herself as a "fan of history" and an avid National Review website reader. "Fan of history." Hmmmmm, somehow, I don't get that from listening to Sarah Palin.

The basic point of Mayer's story is that efforts to push Palin onto the national stage began as far back as February of 2007 and that Palin herself had her eye on the next rung the entire time. There's absolutely nothing wrong with ambition and anyone running for national office has to have ambition to spare to succeed. However, knowing of this ambition brings out two key points about not only Sarah Palin but the Republican party.

First, though her poll numbers are dropping, a bit of revisionist thinking has emerged that has assigned blame for the damage she has done to the ticket and the Republican Party to John McCain. This train of thought basically blames McCain for pulling a promising but unseasoned future star into the spotlight too early so he could try to pursue a desperate grab for a slice of disaffected Hillary Clinton supporting independents. It also faults McCain for trying to flip back from a position as Republican Party insider and heir apparent needed to win the nomination to his more comfortable (but equally false) "outsider" role. The fact that Palin was actively working for two years to advance up the ladder squashes this narrative entirely. We aren't seeing the campaigning of a candidate who until August 28, 2008 had no idea she had to be prepared for the scrutiny of a national campaign. We are seeing the campaigning and communication skills of someone who thought, and still truly thinks, she has what it takes.

Second, the selection of Palin was not solely the result of John McCain trying to distance himself from what he knew was a very unpopular neo-conservative, incumbent tainted Republican Party. Core portions of the conservative media had been actively pushing Palin and willingly polishing her "brand" for over a year before McCain selected her. That speaks volumes about the learning that has taken place within the right wing of the Republican party (NONE -- they pushed another fundamentalist know-nothing) and the inability of any remaining moderate Republicans to wrestle the control of their party out of the hands of the right wing that steered it into the ditch.

If undecided voters had any doubt before about whether Republicans have learned anything from the Bush years, Mayer's article on the selection of Palin should make it clear. The Republicans haven't learned a thing.

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#1) http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/27/081027fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all