As Whitney has already noted in her excellent piece, today marks the three-year-anniversary of John McCain selecting Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate.
I know politics isn’t fair … And I know looking backward doesn’t do much good. (We can’t change the past.) But I gotta tell ya … 2008 still bugs the crap out of me.
And any Republican or Independent out there who won’t support Sarah Palin in 2012 because of her so-called “failed” 2008 VP campaign needs to know the degree to which those failures and perceived “baggage” belong squarely to John McCain and his team.
Blaming Sarah Palin for blowing it in 2008, is like blaming your dog for not meowing loud enough.
Meanwhile, Team McCain’s screw ups and deliberate defamation, shredded the reputation of a dynamic conservative female leader whom Newsweek had hailed in 2007 as a “pragmatic, post-partisan reformer.”
It should be clear to most honest people that Sarah Palin never received the credit she deserved for what she actually provided the McCain campaign – a fundraising explosion, unprecedented tv viewership for her RNC speech, and gargantuan crowds that no Republican presidential ticket had ever seen before, nor will likely ever see again outside of a Palin campaign.
Moreover, she campaigned her heart out. She delivered every speech with gusto, praised McCain sincerely, endorsed him as trustworthy leader, and was an absolute dynamo on the campaign trail. She worked tirelessly and did what was asked of her. In the last few frantic days of the campaign she criss-crossed the country hitting every swing state, before making two exhausting long flights, one back to Alaska to vote and the other to Arizona for what was to be the painful concession.
Even McCain campaign senior advisor Steve Schmidt grudgingly admitted that Palin helped the ticket. Amidst his unproven insults about her lack of preparation, he acknowledged that they never would have led in the polls for even “one second” without Sarah Palin, as they did for nearly a week by seven points shortly after her announcement – until the Lehman Brothers collapse.
"I believe, had she not been on the ticket our margin of defeat would’ve been greater than it would’ve been otherwise," he said.
Compared to 2004, McCain lost 11 points among white men according to the Fox News exit poll but only 4 points among white women. Barack Obama’s underperformance among white women, evident throughout the fall, may be chalked up, in large part, to the influence of Palin. She provided a rallying point for women who saw their political agenda in terms larger than abortion. She addressed the question of what it is like to be a working mother in today’s economy and society, and resonated with tens of millions of white women who have not responded to the more traditional, and liberal, advocates for their gender.
And 69% of GOP voters polled immediately after the election believed Palin helped the ticket.
But these acknowledgments were never headlines in 2008. The headlines blamed Palin for costing McCain the election. It was truly mind-boggling: Since when are VP picks expected to win the election for their running mates? And when are they ever counted as the sole reason for a losing campaign? Did Lieberman get blamed for the Gore defeat? Or Edwards for blowing it for Kerry?
Instead, everyone, including the Obama campaign, the news media, and the public seemed to treat Palin like the presidential nominee … when she had no operational control over the campaign, little say in her media schedule, and nothing whatsoever to do with her so-called “extravagant” attire. Her wardrobe was purchased by a New York stylist hired by the McCains to “class up” the middle-class Palins. Naturally Gov. Palin was blamed for that as well.
I thought it was telling this year when Palin headlined the India Today Conclave in New Dehli, and was asked: “Why didn’t American voters perceive you as the real ‘hope and change’ in 2008? Couldn’t you have been the hope and change?”
Palin’s hair-trigger response was spot on: “I wasn’t on the top of the ticket.”
Um, yeah. Do people not remember that? Indeed, in case anyone forgot due to the constant comparisons with Obama, Palin was running for VP, remember? And she was running for VP in a very flawed campaign.
Shall we recall what really happened in 2008?
1. Botched rollout
John McCain essentially wrapped up the lackluster Republican nomination in February 2008 after Super Tuesday. From February 14 to Aug. 29, his team had more than six months to select a running mate, and to prepare a strategy for rolling out their non-conventional pick to the nation. (We know from later accounts he was dead set on picking Joe Lieberman until the last minute when they settled on Palin, whom he had met back in February). McCain waited until Aug. 26th to call Gov. Palin to invite her to Arizona to offer her the VP spot. She had been vetted by A.B. Culvahouse and his team of lawyers, and would be given one more three-hour interview on the evening of the 27th. The next day McCain extended the formal invitation. From the time she was offered the job on Aug. 28th to the announcement speech in Dayton, Ohio on the 29th, she had less than 24 hours to prepare for a national campaign, and had no idea her reputation was about to be turned into mincemeat. She had just finished work on the AGIA awarding process, and was riding high in Alaska. She had massive bi-partisan accomplishments that Obama could never even dream of.
And yet even before Palin delivered her RNC address, Katie Couric was caught on tape mocking her from the get go:
Did you hear anything about Palin’s accomplishments in that raw video? It was all about her children’s "weird" names, what Sarah Palin did in high school, her beauty pageant participation, hunting, basketball, and her penchant for eating moose burgers. Nothing about negotiating the largest private infrastructure project in North American history. Nothing about bi-partisan ethics reform. Nothing about her well-documented history as a reformer in Alaska nor her stellar fiscal record.
Of course, it didn’t help that McCain’s people apparently didn’t know much about Palin either. They were Googling information about her, and calling her staff in Alaska to find out more details about the accomplished woman they’d selected for their campaign. While they had vetted Palin thoroughly down to the last council vote she ever cast, their preparation for quickly responding to media requests about her was a complete disaster.
It also was disastrous when the introductory video they planned to show at the convention prior to Palin’s speech was scrapped at the last moment due to Rudy Giuliani’s talk going too long. So while Palin delivered an excellent speech that was even hailed by her critics, the public was not given the full introduction that could have provided more context for why she was chosen as a VP nominee. And sadly, many people to this day know nothing about Gov. Palin’s real record of accomplishment.
2. Wrong-headed media strategy
But if the botched roll-out had been the only problem, that would have been a blessing. Things got worse. After keeping Palin sequestered for nearly 10 days after her rollout, the McCain camp “eased” her into the national limelight with two pressure-packed-all-or-nothing taped interviews with known liberals Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Nicolle Wallace personally walked Gov. Palin into the “Lion’s Den” with the series of lengthy interviews with Katie Couric that seemed to be a turning point in public perception about Governor Palin. The total aired footage constituted about 20 minutes out of a six-hour interview. And it was skillfully edited to reveal only what Couric wanted to reveal.
I’ve often thought about the now infamous “What newspapers do you read?” question that everyone cites as evidence of Palin’s stupidity. You see, I, like millions of people around the world, don’t subscribe to newspapers or magazines anymore. I read “all of them” through news aggregation sites like Facebook, Drudge Report, Fox Nation, Hot Air, Newsbusters, Twitter and even Conservatives4Palin. I pull all the headlines up daily on my smart phone.
Aside from being slightly condescending, Couric’s question was hopelessly dated, given that we know people receive their news online and through Twitter accounts. Governor Palin also had been written up and quoted in several oil and gas publications that Couric could have possibly researched had she been an actual reporter, instead of a deeply-placed Democrat operative.
Should Palin have told Couric what she actually reads? (She later told Barbara Walters she reads Newsmax, the Wall Street Journal and all her local Alaska papers.) Sure, maybe, but perhaps in a six-hour interview where Couric hadn’t bothered to research Gov. Palin’s actual record, Palin simply gave her the proverbial finger on that question. She later said she was simply irritated with Couric.
(Apparently Couric irritated her own viewers as well, as she consistently ranked dead last among the three evening news programs, and was replaced this year as anchor after seeing a 24% drop in viewership from when she started five years earlier.)
What bugged me about the McCain campaign’s media strategy is that they didn’t seem to recognize Palin’s innate media savvy and give her more leeway to use her instincts. Palin’s main job was to win over the base. She should have been interacting with all sorts of local and conservative media. As we saw in her bus tour this summer Palin knows very well how to engage in a charming and effective way with members of the press.
3. Blame casting
As if botching the rollout and completely screwing up the media strategy weren’t enough, members of the McCain camp decided to make Palin the scapegoat for the election loss. The Obama media were still drunk with Obama-victory joy when Wallace and others began their post-defeat smear campaign of Gov. Palin. They leaked false rumors about the Governor answering the hotel door in a bath robe, not knowing the difference between a country and a continent, and other complete tall tales that were never corroborated.
I will never forget the gleeful look on Carl Cameron’s face as he reported all these lies from “unnamed” sources. I cannot to this day forgive him for it. It was a putrid example of media character assasination.
I guess many of us learned the brutal reality about politics in 2008 … it’s not pretty. It’s not fair. And more often than not, honest and unsuspecting folks get steamrolled.
Was Governor Palin perfect? Of course not. Who is? But did she perform admirably under the circumstances where she was a running mate, not the "main event"? Was she an asset to the campaign? Most definitely.
There is only one thing that will make up for the 2008 angst that I continue to feel to this day. And that is to see Governor Palin run for president in her own right in 2012, and show the world the capable, intelligent, honest, and hard-working person she really is.
And I expect that without the shackles of an incompetent and mean-spirited campaign around her neck, she’ll do just that.