The mishandling of Sarah Palin by the McCain campaign could go down as one of the greatest lost opportunities in modern politics. The squandering of the political benefits of a potential political folk hero has been painful to watch. All the promises Palin's convention speech held out for conservatives are in dangers of being lost unless the campaign can turn a corner in this week's debate.
Don't get me wrong. Palin's appeal is still strong among white women even though her appeal outside those bounds has been tarnished by the bungling Bush handlers who have had her ear since the convention.
The mistakes the McCain campaign made are plain as day: I can see them from my house. According to reports, McCain himself is fully aware of the situation and has dispatched several competent hands to salvage the situation.
What went wrong? More importantly, how do you fix it?
Palin's greatest appeal was her normal person credentials. She was mother of five who had upset the political powers of an entire state. She was the female Mr. Smith going to Washington to stand up for the little guy. So what do McCain's handlers do? They take her behind closed doors and fill her with political, economic, and foreign policy arcana and try to turn the Hockey Mom from Wasilla into Brainiac from Alaska.
If it had worked it would have failed.
As it is, they have produced a vice presidential candidate whose words don't fit her speech. It isn't that what she says is necessarily inaccurate or embarrassing per se--you have to go visit the other party's running mate if you want to get a taste of that. The problem is that she appears to be trying so hard to sound like an expert. Her remarks have the earnest ring of someone's first high school term paper on current events.
Every question elicits a stream of disconnected facts you can tell have been drilled into her in interminable quiz sessions on the campaign plane. Her coaches (all candidates have them) should have been telling her to do what all good PR coaches tell their clients: answer the question you wish the interviewer had asked and to do it in a few words as possible. Instead, her presentation has all the feel of being beaten over the head with an almanac. Anyone who has seen the footage of her performance in debates running for governor knows that, before the Bush advisers got to her, she was perfectly competent in such an environment.
Is it Palin's fault? She has to shoulder some of the blame here, but let's face it, when you get picked to be a presidential running mate, you're in a position of having to do what the guy at the top of the ticket tells you. It's a hard position to be in no matter who you are. That Biden has not been kept on as close a leash is more a function of no one caring what he says than the actual quality of what he has to say.
What where they thinking when they decided to have her play to her weaknesses rather than her strengths? Why in the world would you play on your opponents terms rather than your own? Did these people fail Politics 101?
From the last word of her convention speech it has been downhill. The decisions made by the McCain campaign in using her are simply inexplicable. On the one hand, they keep her from making small talk with reporters on the campaign trail where she would have easily acclimated to the national stage, and then they thrown her in the lion's den with people like Charlie Gibson and Catie Couric. I'm surprised they didn't send her to Jon Stewart first thing. They might as well have.
This is simply political malpractice. Who made these decisions? Find them and send them packing: they don't belong in politics. Give them their walking papers and whisper in their ears as they leave headquarters, "Electronics."
Palin should have gotten a good night's sleep after the convention and headed straight over to Sean Hannity's studio. Then maybe Bill O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren. And when a full week had been spent at Fox News' studios, get on the talk radio circuit. Spend an afternoon with Rush. Go see Michael Reagan. Visit the studios of every conservative talk radio host on the air.
And when the mainstream media complained that she was being kept from them, she could have adjusted her hood and told them what nice teeth they had, but that they needed to get out of the way because she had a basket of goodies to deliver to the next conservative interviewer. Every conservative would have cheered her on.
To put it simply, Americans were promised a normal person, but they have succeeded only in giving Tina Fay new notoriety.
If Palin is smart, she'll run away from the campaign in the dead of night and refuse to tell her handlers where she is or what she intends to do. She eloped once. She knows how to do this. Then she can go out scouring the countryside for like-minded populists, gathering an army of peasants with pitchforks, and serve the only legitimate role of a community organizer: raising Cain. In the wake of the financial crisis, enthusiastic followers should be easy to find.
She can tell her inept advisers she'll see them at the debate. Maybe.
McCain should spend the rest of the campaign reinventing her image back into the mold of the hockey mom. They need to forget about trying to make her look more experienced than she is. Palin's appeal was never that she was experienced. In fact, her appeal was that she was like most Americans few of whom are experts on anything in particular.
Right now there are millions of Americans inexperienced in economics who have been told one thing by one set of experts and another by a different set of them. Sarah Palin could voice their frustrations--the frustrations of normal people who don't know who to trust. If she comes out trying to sound like another expert with a solution (and not doing it very well), she loses. If she comes out voicing the fears and frustrations of people who have watched their "experienced" leaders demonstrate their ineptitude even in trying to do what many Americans think was the wrong thing anyway, she wins.
Palin needs to drop the expert act. It isn't convincing, and isn't what she should have allowed her handlers to foist on her in the first place. She needs to act like who she is. This is the woman who said, "I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion." The problem is, that's what it seems like she's trying to do. To try to become the very thing you got into politics to oppose in the first place is an idea only political experts who have lost touch with normal people could have come up with.
Anyone interested in the what has happened to Palin needs to see Frank Capra's classic film "Meet John Doe," starring Gary Cooper. It is a movie about a man who is picked off the street and who, through the skills of people who have neither his nor the people's best interests at heart, becomes a political hero to millions because he is just like them. After reluctantly going along with the plan, he finds out that his sponsors are going to use his tremendous popularity for their own selfish purposes, and he rebels. But in the course of their exploitation of him, he has become the very person they have portrayed him to be--the everyman who identifies with normal people. No longer reluctant, he refuses to go along with their plan, and strikes out on his own, giving his own speeches. As a result, they try to destroy him. Rather than betray those who loved him for what he was portrayed to be--and what he in fact has become, he risks his own life to save the country from them.
There are obvious differences in Palin's position, but the contrasts to Palin are as instructive as the comparisons. John Doe's handlers, unlike Sarah Palin's, actually understood what image they wanted to project. They knew the power of populism. And John Doe's enemies are in fact his own supporters, not a hostile media. Palin's problem is not being manipulated by evil benefactors, but incompetent advisers.
But she is the female version of John Doe, and if McCain's campaign is smart, they'll go watch the film and see how to develop a populist personality, not try to turn her into something else. If they don't, the Palin should do like the movie hero, who, in everyone's best interest, strikes out on his own.
That's what a real maverick would do.