Wednesday, January 13, 2010
by JOHN NICHOLS
January 13, 2010
Here's another notion with regard to Sarah Palin:
Maybe it isn't fair to focus on her mean-spirited and ridiculously partisan statements.
Maybe it isn't right to harp about her wildly irresponsible assessments of political foes — and even of former political allies.
Maybe it isn't wise to note all of her missteps and misstatements as if they are evidence of a cavalier approach to politics and governing.
Maybe, just maybe, Palin is doing the best she can.
Maybe the woman who has just signed on as a Fox News contributor is not quite the bright star her supporters imagine and her critics fear. Maybe she is just a little bit dimmer than we thought.
That's the clear implication of the passages in the new book of the 2008 presidential election, Game Change, by veteran political reporters John Heilemann (New York magazine) and Mark Halperin (Time magazine).
In the book, and in a CBS "60 Minutes" interview, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain's senior adviser, Steve Schmidt, describes Palin as a stunningly inept and ill-prepared contender for the vice presidency.
Schmidt portrays a rushed process that saw the selection of a political neophyte who was essentially ignorant regarding U.S. history and "a broad spectrum of national-security issues."
"Her foreign policy tutors are literally taking her through, 'This is World War I, this is World War II, this is the Korean War,'" Heilemann explained on "60 Minutes." "This is the — how the Cold War worked. Steve Schmidt had gone to them and said, 'She knows nothing.'"
Palin either did not know truth from fiction, or did not care to distinguish the two, according to Schmidt.
"There were numerous instances that she said things that were — that were not accurate that ultimately, the campaign had to deal with," the McCain aide recalls. "And that opened the door to criticism that she was being untruthful and inaccurate. And I think that that is something that continues to this day."
As an example, Schmidt reflected on Palin's response to an official inquiry that detailed her ethical lapses as governor of Alaska: "She went out and said that, you know, 'This report completely exonerates me.' And in fact, it didn't. You know, it's the equivalent of saying down is up and up is down. It was provably, demonstrably untrue."
McCain aides who were preparing the first-term governor of Alaska for her sole debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, were reportedly horrified by Palin's ignorance and lack of focus.
Schmidt recalled a frantic staffer calling his after failed attempts to ready the party's nominee for a face-off with one of the most experienced members of the U.S. Senate.
"(The aide) told us that the debate was going to be a debacle of historic and epic proportions," Schmidt said. "He told us she was not focused. She was not engaged. She was really not participating in the prep."
Among the problems: Palin was unable to remember Joe Biden's name.
Confusing the Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees, Palin constantly referred to Biden as "O'Biden."
Conscious of the threat of new Tina Fey parodies on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," McCain aides came up with a strategy to avoid having Palin mention Biden's last name.
"It was multiple people — and I wasn't one of them — who all said at the same time, 'Just say, "Can I call you Joe?",' which she did," recounts Schmidt.
Even with the ruse, Palin still referred to her opponent as "O'Biden" at one point in the debate.
So how did Palin end up on the GOP ticket?
McCain and his aides had been leaning toward Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent who backed the Republican nominee, as a prospective running mate. But they feared rabidly right-wing delegates might revolt on the convention floor and divide the party.
McCain's campaign manager trolled the Internet – paying special attention to YouTube videos – in search of a woman who might make a good running-mate. He stumbled across a video of a peppy Palin, liked what he saw, and things progressed rapidly from there.
With almost no vetting, Palin was added to the ticket.
She reacted calmly to this remarkable development, telling Schmidt it was "God's plan."
How did the plan work out?
Schmidt would not say whether he made a mistake, although he suggests that a "Palin for President" run in 2012 would be a nightmare for the GOP.
Rather, the McCain aide suggests that Palin ultimately helped by energizing the party's conservative base. "I believe, had she not been on the ticket our margin of defeat would've been greater than it would've been otherwise," says Schmidt.
On this point, he is half right.
Palin was, undoubtedly, a more appealing running-mate than Lieberman. But what if McCain had picked someone who could speak boldly and effectively about economic issues from a corporate and managerial perspective, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney? Wouldn't that have helped when the economy melted down two weeks after the GOP convention concluded?
Or what if McCain had picked a genuine maverick, like South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who might have steered the campaign toward opposition to what turned out to be an exceptionally unpopular bailout of big banks and Wall Street speculators? Wouldn't that have helped the Republicans build a more muscular campaign than the suggestion that it would be cool to have a "hockey mom" one heartbeat away from an aging president?
Of course, there will be Palin defenders who want to suggest that she really is a smart cookie.
But their case is undermined by Palin's whiny (and ghost-written) autobiography, as well as her bumbling mid-term exit from Alaska's governorship.
In the end, Democrats should probably hope that GOP diehards dismiss the warnings coming from Schmidt and other McCain aides and proceed with their Palin passion.
But the latest revelations suggest that Americans, no matter what their partisan affiliation or ideology, would be wise to consider the prospect that the Republican party and the republic might be better served by a 2012 nominee who could remember how to pronounce Joe Biden's name.