Dispatch August 2008

What McCain Didn't Know About Sarah Palin

And why he probably would have picked her anyway

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.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor. He blogs at marcambinder.theatlantic.com.

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