I've had a sort of grudging respect for McCain for some time. I don't think he's particularly conservative, except in a certain temperamental fashion. There are some issues where I generally agree with him (unlike most conservatives, immigration is one of these) but there are others where I think he's quite wrong. He does, however, have a certain Old Roman sort of honor and civic virtue -- something rare
in politics these days. Though there are issues on which I disagree with him, I do at least respect McCain's gravitas as a Cato or Pliny-like figure -- a respect I do not have for Obama's lightweight Tiberius Gracchus impersonation.
However, I'd basically expected McCain to run a solid (to the point of stolid), honorable and slightly boring campaign, and be patted on the back in November for letting Obama win by "only" 30-40 electoral votes and 2% of the popular vote. However, there's more life and imagination in the old lion than that. When McCain introduced Governor Palin to the nation last Friday, I started feeling enthusiastic for the first time in this election cycle, and it started to seem possible that McCain really did have it in him to lead a winning ticket.
One of my biggest problems with the GOP of late has been its descent into petty corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, and no more than lip service to principled conservative ideals. The Palin pick suggests to me strongly that McCain is prepared to take on the first two of these, and perhaps some of the third.
However, many were clearly not as impressed with the pick as I was. While I'd been reading about Palin and hoping that she'd be chosen for the last few months, reliable liberal media commentator Eleanor Cliff reported that when the McCain pick was announced there was open laughter in many newsrooms. Many analysts immediately claimed that this represented a ham-handed attempt to appeal to feminist Hillary voters -- which was doomed to failure because Palin was hopelessly "anti-choice" and not of sufficiently elite pedigree. When Palin and her husband released a press release on Monday saying that their seventeen-year-old daughter and her eighteen-year-old fiance were pregnant (and expressing the hope that the media would respect their privacy) the media initiated a complete bloodbath (the NY Times ran three cover stories on the daughter's pregnancy) and roundly scolded McCain for incompletely vetting Palin. Many theorized that McCain had become so scared and so desperate after seeing Obama's convention speech Thursday, that he made a desperate gamble by picking a totally unqualified woman for the ticket.
That this line of thinking got so much coverage just goes to show how strongly many in the media are invested in Obama's candidacy, because the facts of the matter were readily available. (And that's ignoring the ridiculous and despicable "her youngest baby isn't really hers" rumors which were happily dug up from the swamps of the Daily Kos and circulated by mainstream press outlets.)
However, it turns out that this theory is very easily refuted. This Washington Post article does a pretty good job of talking to the insiders about the VP selection process, and it definitely sounds like this was no last minute decision.
It seems that McCain first met Palin back in February at a governor's convention, where he was impressed with her reform credentials and her grasp of the all-important energy issue. They talked 1x1 there briefly, and McCain reportedly had her near the top of his VP candidate list ever since.
Far from being a last-minute tactical move or a second choice when better known alternatives were eliminated, Palin was very much in McCain's thinking from the beginning of the selection process, according to McCain's advisers. The 44-year-old governor made every cut as the first list of candidates assembled last spring was slowly winnowed. The more McCain learned about her, the more attracted he was to her as someone who shared his maverick, anti-establishment instincts.By all accounts, the vetting process was quite thorough. All leading candidates were asked to list any controversial articles or speeches they had given, personal and family problems, etc. The first thing that Governor Palin mentioned in this regard was that her seventeen-year-old daughter was pregnant -- a fact that was already generally known in her home town of Wassilla. McCain said he didn't think that that should be an issue. He and she must have both known very well, however, that it could not be concealed and that the liberal press and blogsphere would have a feeding frenzy over it. I can only assume that Palin discussed this with her daughter, and that they believe that since her daughter's marriage and future rest in a 9,000 person town in Alaska, well away from the DC feeding frenzy, she and her new family will be alright. Power and distance can provide an awful lot of insulation.
"He looked at her like a kindred spirit," said one close adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely. "Someone who wasn't afraid to take tough positions."
Six people were involved in the secretive deliberations that led to Palin's selection: McCain; his wife, Cindy; campaign manager Davis; longtime confidant Mark Salter; senior adviser Steve Schmidt; and key strategist Charlie Black. In addition, Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse oversaw the vetting.
Starting last spring, the inner circle met regularly with McCain to review and discuss an initial list of about three dozen possible choices. "He and several of us had multiple meetings," one adviser said. "Discussions, strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates. He asked a lot of questions and listened -- didn't tip his hand to too many of us. He was very insistent that this process often wounds people, and we were to stay very quiet."
McCain's advisers conducted interviews with a number of the prospective choices, but McCain did not. Most he knew well enough to have a sense of their personalities, policy positions and character.
For all the focus on Pawlenty, Romney and Lieberman, Palin was the leading candidate by the beginning of last week. Davis had spoken with her a number of times. The McCain camp had reviewed everything it could find on her, including videotapes of her public speeches and interviews. "She makes a great speech," one adviser observed.
Last Sunday night, McCain talked to Palin by phone from Arizona in what aides described as a somewhat-lengthy call that resulted in McCain asking her to come to Arizona.
On Wednesday Palin flew to Flagstaff. That night she conferred with Schmidt and Salter. The next morning around 7, the three of them, along with a Palin aide, climbed into an SUV with tinted windows to begin the 45-minute drive to McCain's retreat in Sedona.
When they arrived, McCain offered Palin some coffee before taking her to a bend in a creek on the property where there are places to sit and a hawk's nest looming above. It is one of McCain's favorite places, and the two talked alone there until they were joined by McCain's wife, Cindy, who is described as having played a key role throughout the selection process.
After about an hour, Palin joined her aide on the deck of McCain's cabin, while the candidate and his wife went for a walk along the creek. When they returned, McCain held one last session with aides Schmidt and Salter. Then he offered Palin the job. The deal was sealed "with a handshake, a pat on the back," one adviser said.
Nonetheless, even just reading the print media over the last few days has been enough to make the blood boil. And so by last night, conservatives were ready to get some of their own back and see Palin bring the house down. She did not disappoint.
Not having a TV in the house, I catch speeches less than I might otherwise prefer. The only Obama speeches that I've heard all the way through have been his Philadelphia speech on race and his convention acceptance speech. And so perhaps my expectations have not been correctly lowered by the generally low rhetorical tenor of our times. I'd thought that Palin's acceptance last Friday was decent and solid, but not outstanding. However as I've watched Obama's convention speech, and the speeches by Lieberman, Romney, Huckaby, and the Governor of Hawaii at the GOP convention, I realized that my expectations must be overly high. Obama's speech had struck me as okay (if you can believe that sort of thing) but certainly not great, Lieberman's was limp, the Governor of Hawaii can't speak well, Romney's as not very good and Huckaby delivered fairly well but spent way too much of his time on a weird anecdote about a schoolteacher denying her students desks until veterans brought them in.
Rudy's speech finally started to pick up the tone a bit. I don't like him a bit, but he has the instincts of an entertainer, and he laid into Obama and into the treatment the press had given Palin with a will. It was a fun speech, though not a deep one.
Then Palin came on stage.
One can quibble with a thing or two. I personally would have preferred to get a bit more policy talk -- though her discussion on energy policy (clearly her strong point given her management of Alaska's oil and natural gas resources -- which the state owns, according to its constitution, and leases extractions rights to) was solid. I wished she had included a few lines on social issues, conservative principles, and abortion. However, she's the VP candidate, the policy properly belongs to the president. I thought Palin did what she needed to do as far as emphasizing her own toughness, poise and readiness; the general conservative worldview; and McCain's personal strengths.
But overall, this was a brilliant performance. She is at least as good a natural political talent and speaker as Obama. And she came out tough and feisty after several days of unimaginably vicious media attacks, and did so with humor and grace rather than anger. A political star was born last night. I would be glad to see her as president in 4-8 years -- and the Obama camp has good reason to be scared as she gets down to barnstorming Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
With a speaker like that, I hope that she's assigned a couple of the McCain team's best writers to sit down with her and craft a couple of solid speeches on issues such as:
- Energy policy
- "Kitchen Table" issues: Jobs, Housing and Education
- Principled social conservatism
- Real feminism
They've got the best political talent the GOP has seen in a long time on their hands, and I hope they don't waste it.
And hey, maybe she can even address national security: