Alex Massie

McCain’s Second Life

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What was John McCain to do? By that, I mean: what sort of campaign was he supposed to run? Steve Benen says it's "chilling" that Sarah Palin could be a heartbeat from the Presidency. Matt Yglesias notes the "crassly political" nature of her selection and asks what federal agency or cabinet department she might be qualified to run if she hadn't been picked as McCain's running-mate. Andrew Sullivan, in his characteristically restrained style, fears for the future if "this dangerous, vindictive, Christianist cipher" is "foisted" upon the United States.

And yes, today's New York Times story on her record - and style of governing - in Alaska is, to put it mildly, far from encouraging. As Rod Dreher writes, "Look, I love the image of Sarah Barracuda tearing through the corrupt ol' boy establishment of Alaska. But how real is it? Are we thinking we're getting a real reformer, but are actually just getting someone whose idea of reform is to replace one good ol' boy network with one of her own?" Equally, David Frum's concerns are real and persuasive: she really isn't ready to be President.

(Mini-digression: oddly, there's an argument you can make that the Vice-Presidential candidate needs to be more, not less qualified to be President than the chap at the top of the ticket. Why? Because a VP can only become President in an emergency and so needs to be able to start governing immediately. A President - eg, Clinton - can learn on the job even if this costs capital and credibility; a Veep does not enjoy that luxury. Of course, if Palin were to become President in, say, 2011, that would be one thing, but the potential for her to in the Oval Office next year is quite another. Biden could do the job next year, Palin probably couldn't. That's an unfortunate truth that her boosters just look silly trying to deny.)

Still, a super-qualified running-mate is not much use if they don't help the ticket win in the first place. And that's why I ask: what was John McCain supposed to do? The front-running candidates for his Veep would each, I think, have guaranteed his defeat. Mitt Romney? Please! Tim Pawlenty? What a snooze. Joe Lieberman? You have to be kidding. none of these men could have had Sarah Palin's impact upon the race. None of them would have been a potential game-changer. They were - Lieberman excepted - safe picks who would have helped, I believe, McCain trundle along to a worthy, honourable defeat. (Lieberman, of course, would have been a disastrous choice.)

And that is what many of Palin's harshest critics would have wanted. Better for McCain to lose with honour than prevail after an ugly, unpleasant, malicious campaign. And there's something to that. Most of us, when we're asked whether the ends justify the means, tend to reply, "Well, it depends, doesn't it? What end? What means?"

But one may also understand why the McCain campaign doesn't see it like that. Politics is, if you like, war by other means. And just as the logic of warfare can demand - when you get right down to the bloody essence of the matter - total war, so you might conclude, if the prize is big enough then politics has to be total politics too. Otherwise, why get involved in the first place?

Different folk will draw the line in different places, of course. But negativite campaigns work. Recall that Obama has often been criticised by sympathetic friends for not throwing enough punches. In the primary and now in the general election, he's being urged to hit hard and not to worry whether his blows land above or below the belt.

As Ezra Klein rightly says, McCain got almost no coverage when he was talking about poverty or policy. He needed to do something different. And so we have an audacious gamble accompanied by a negative campaign that, to put it politely, is increasingly economical with the truth. The media should be tougher on McCain, but if it isn't prepared to be then, from a political rather than a moral or ethical perspective, one can understand why he's running this kind of campaign.

Palin then, is a high-stakes gamble and it's quite possible that she will unravel and that she will be seen, in the end, as a disastrous punt that condemned McCain to a calamitous, dishonourable defeat. Maybe. Right now, it's too soon to tell. It's rare, of course, for a Vice-President to have anything like this impact on a race. In fact I can't offhand think of a comparable case since the Kennedy administration. (LBJ of course, was a game-changer who was also ready to govern. Best of both worlds! But McCain had no-one who could fulfill both roles. He had to decide which was more important now.)

As I say, McCain had to do something. By energising the party's base, Palin gave McCain hope and an opportunity to attack Obama. It's precisely because Obama is, in many respects, the stronger candidate that we're seeing this sort of campaign. For the first time in months, FiveThirtyEight thinks McCain is ahead. Some of this, of course, is down to dishonest campaigning, but a lot of it is to do with Palin and the opportunity her selection gave McCain to change the dynamics of the race.

She may well be a terrible, reckless pick. In one sense I understand and sympathise with the questions her selection raises about McCain's judgement. But in another sense, she's the most significant and, in one way, the most brilliant Veep nominee since LBJ in 1960: she's put her man back in the game and given him a chance to win. All the other truths about her are important and, yes, possibly disconcerting, but none of them matter as much as that one. For the past three weeks, the campaign has been about McCain, not Obama. That wouldn't have happened if McCain had chosen any other running-mate.

In other words, no matter how horrified folk may be, and even though it may end terribly (Will it? I don't know! Do you? Honestly?) McCain made what it, in political terms, the right choice. The hysteria has helped McCain and, seeing that hysteria and mendacity work, it's not so surprising that he's continuing along that path until circumstances demand a change of course. One may despair of this, of course and even find it hateful and of course McCain didn't have to make this choice  - and he's responsible for the consequences and should be held responsible for them - but crying "It's not fair!" seems an inadequate response to a perfectly rational campaign strategy...

Still, in time this may be seen as summer froth. I'm not sure if the Palin Effect can last until polling day and it seems likely that, in the end, the debates will matter more than the Vice-Presidency. Palin's achievement is to give McCain a chance of making the debates matter. She has bought him time and given him momentum, precious materials without which he would have already lost.

UPDATE: Of course, this is only true for the time being. Events, laddie, events may change it all. As Daniel Larison correctly points out, if Palin blows up everyone will pivot and say that McCain should have chosen Pawlenty. Daniel makes a far from bad case for Pawlenty here. (Though of course Mr Larison also wants McCain to lose.)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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