Dispatch August 2008

What McCain Didn't Know About Sarah Palin

And why he probably would have picked her anyway
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A few days before John Kerry introduced John Edwards as his running mate, a select few members of Kerry's research staff were given five names, told to adopt the mindset of Republican opposition research, and to prepare a political dossier. What were the likeliest lines of attack that Republicans would use? What political pitfalls might the professional attorneys who conducted the vetting process have missed?

Also see:

The "Eagleton Scenario" (September 2, 2008)
Could Sarah Palin become the first running mate since Thomas Eagleton in 1972 to be dropped from a major-party ticket? Joshua Green offers a look at how such a scenario would unfold.

By the day of the announcement, Kerry's research team had a comprehensive folder prepared about Edwards that included suggested responses for dozens of potential attacks against Edwards's resume, character, and positions.

This year, the intense secrecy with which McCain advisor A.B. Culvahouse completed his vetting of Sarah Palin preserved the surprise. And ultimately, McCain aides say they're sure that the rewards will be worth the risks. But as the Palin pick turns 72 hours old, McCain's campaign is learning as much about her from the media and from Democrats as they are from what minimal political preparation they had.

The campaign anticipated that the Obama campaign would attack Palin's experience, to which they responded by claiming that she has more experience than he does.

They anticipated that some would compare Palin's Alaska to Clinton's Little Rock, although Palin, in this comparison, is the anti-establishment figure.

They anticipated that some would compare the pick to Dan Quayle, although Quayle had much more experience and never got along with Bush and was consistently undermined by Bush advisers like James Baker. Apples and oranges.

Privately, one campaign official says they were aware of several of the more scurrilous rumors about Palin making the rounds of the blogosphere, although the official declined to "dignify" them with any comment.

They've bragged that Palin opposed the famous "Bridge to Nowhere," only to learn that Palin supported the project and even told residents of Ketchikan that they weren't "nowhere" to her. After the national outcry, she decided to spend the funds allocated to the bridge for something else. Actually, maybe it's more fair to say that coincident with the national outcry, she changed her mind. The story shows her political judgment, but it is not a reformer's credential.

Likewise, though she cut taxes as mayor of Wassila, she raised the sales tax, making her hardly a tax cutter.

She denied pressuring the state's chief of public safety to fire her sister-in-law's husband even though there's mounting evidence that the impetus did indeed come from her. Ostensibly to clear her name, Palin asked her attorney general to open an independent investigation—the legislature had already been investigating. (I am told that the campaign was aware of the ethics complaint filed against her but accepts Palin's account.)

McCain's campaign seemed unaware that she supported a windfalls profits tax on oil companies and that she is more skeptical about human contributions to global warming than McCain is.

They did not know that she took trips as the mayor of Wasilla to beg for earmarks.

They did not know that she told a television interviewer this summer that she did not fully understand what it is that a vice president does.

Had McCain had the time or inclination to think about all of this, he still might have picked her. Like him, she has a habit of kicking lobbyists out of her office. Like him, she has a reputation for being a blunt speaker. Like him, she has a rep for cutting spending, and unlike him, had the executive authority to do so, slashing more than 10 percent of the state's proposed budget in 2007. Like him, she did not seem to care if she offended Republicans. She was, as he told an interviewer, a soul-mate, one he recognized over the course of a single meeting with her last week. That reinforced the sense he took away from their first encounter just six months ago.

The official tick-tocks that McCain and his advisers have put out, as well as some interviews with participants, really do suggest that as of early last week, everyone but McCain assumed that he would pick Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, or Joe Lieberman.

On Tuesday, a senior campaign official who participated in the final discussions began to hint to reporters that the pick might be transformative in the sense that it would anger right-wing Republicans and bring McCain back to the center.

On Wednesday morning, another senior campaign official who was part of the vetting process said that McCain had not indicated who he had chosen. On Wednesday afternoon, the Politico reported that McCain had made up his mind, but it wasn't until that evening that McCain began to tell some of his friends. Until Thursday morning, he didn't even tell his best friend, Lindsey Graham, a staunch proponent of Joe Lieberman. (Graham has never met Palin, nor have most senior McCain campaign officials.)

Later on Thursday, a few senior officials, including senior communications adviser Matthew McDonald, were tasked with putting together a messaging operation. McDonald worked through the night crafting talking points and scheduling surrogate phone calls.

The news media was chasing its own rumor—that campaign manager Rick Davis had given Fox News's Carl Cameron word of the pick but had embargoed it until 6:00 p.m. ET. Reporters e-mailed Cameron to find out if this was true. "Not exactly," he wrote back. (Cameron would indeed be the first reporter to formally break the news, but he did so via his own shoe leather. No one leaked him the scoop. )

Late Thursday night, the campaign began to tell some of his surrogates that the pick would upend the "conventional wisdom." Speculation swung to Tom Ridge and Joe Lieberman. Governor Tim Pawlenty usually spends the night at his private home in St. Paul. Expecting to be picked, he camped out in the more formal governors' mansion.

Late Thursday night, aviation buffs first noticed a curious series of out-of-the-ordinary airplane flight plans from Anchorage to Flagstaff to a small airport outside Dayton. (Why not Dayton itself? Campaigns routinely try to hide these flights by diverting them to tiny airstrips far enough away from cities and events, a practice that the Obama campaign used to good effect.)

The charter airplane was owned by a McCain donor.

Early Friday morning, most news organizations, acting based on those internet reports, scrambled to arrange feeds from their Alaska affiliates.

And Democrats began to book their researchers tickets to Alaska.

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor. He blogs at marcambinder.theatlantic.com.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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