As Senator John McCain continues bravely fighting his battle with cancer, a flurry of thoughts and memories of the remarkable American continue to emerge. At least one stood out at me as particularly perplexing.
Last week the New York Times reported that Senator John McCain wrote in his new book that he regretted having selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Palin called the report, “a perpetual gut-punch,” after hearing the precise opposite from McCain personally for years.
A few observations about the whole ordeal:
- It’s possible this isn’t true, which is what Palin seems to think. She suggests that it is the work of one of McCain’s ghostwriters, noting that people will often speak for politicians and misrepresent their true feelings. I don’t know McCain’s state of mind and his ability to think and articulate rationally as he continues to battle brain cancer. But the idea that he didn’t really say this is plausible.
- Still, I think it is highly probable that this report accurately reflects McCain’s true sentiments in 2008. Senator McCain was hardly a conservative champion during his years in the Senate. And while he pivoted right to overcome primary challenges from Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, any belief that McCain’s convictions had shifted towards Palin’s more traditional conservative ideas is silly.
- McCain’s close relationship with Democrat Joe Lieberman is well known; and given that he is the reported preference for McCain in 2008, I think it adds credibility to the claim. It would be quintessential John McCain, who relished the role of the Republican Party’s “maverick,” to select Al Gore’s former running mate to form a bipartisan ticket.
We may never know for sure what McCain was thinking in 2008. But here is what we can know for certain: If the report is true, it demonstrates an astounding lack of political sense.
Sarah Palin’s selection injected an energy and intensity into a campaign that was otherwise dead in the water. A quirky, conservative firebrand, Palin’s convention speech was the only moment of the campaign that serious political observers considered Obama’s meteoric rise might face a challenge.
To say that Palin wasn’t ready for the national stage is fair. To say that, in hindsight, she turned out to lack the policy chops that would have made her an effective player in D.C. is fair. But to say that McCain’s margin of loss without her wouldn’t have been staggering is engaging the worst kind of historical revisionism.
There was a perfect political storm that allowed a stunningly unprepared Senator from Illinois to ascend to the White House that year, not the least of which was the galling lack of a serious challenger on the right. But logically, who would a theoretical McCain/Lieberman ticket appeal to? The center-left.
Is there any thoughtful political analyst who thinks that Barack Obama was going to lose the center-left to anyone in 2008? Not a chance. Meanwhile, on the right, staunch conservatives were already opposed to McCain’s candidacy. Adding a pro-abortion Democrat to the ticket would have undoubtedly led to a third-party conservative challenger, thus dividing McCain’s already slim election yield. It is distinctly possible that if it became a three person race in that sense, Obama’s electoral success might have been on Reagan/FDR landslide levels.
Think of her current political involvement what you will, but Sarah Palin has never been adequately appreciated for saving the Republican Party generally and John McCain specifically from an epic shellacking in 2008.