Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RNC Day 2: Waiting for Sarah

“He is ready to lead this nation,” said President Bush tonight, speaking to thunderous applause before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in support of Sen. John McCain, speaking to the audience by video hookup from nine hundred thirty miles away.

The president and other speakers, from Laura Bush to Sen. Joe Lieberman, championed the presumptive Republican nominee with a nightlong recitation of the public record: McCain the legitimate Vietnam War hero.

“We live in a dangerous world, and we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001,” Bush said from the White House, where he was said to be busy with matters related to Hurricane Gustav. "That to protect America, we must stay on offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain."

Tuesday was really the first full day of the convention, since Monday was given over to procedural matters and the obvious distraction of Hurricane Gustav's landfall. Nothing much happened Monday. Today and tonight the mood was different: the gathering was part pep rally, part VFW meeting, part not-quite-big-tent revival, but it was all a ceremony deeply committed to the stalwarts of a political party under siege. And it all reinforced what we already know about McCain, and not much more.

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There was definitely drama enough. Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and presidential candidate, stood on the stage of the Xcel Energy Center and dished huge slabs of oratorical red meat to the crowd. The crowd ate every scrap.

With a McCain history slide show smartly dissolving images behind him, Thompson praised McCain’s war record and sacrifices in uniform in times that were deeply moving. Then Thompson — part standup comic, part fire-and-brimstone preacher — made the pivot to a full-throated attack on the Obama campaign, coming down on his youth, his voting record and his comparative inexperience on Capitol Hill.

"Democrats present a history-making nominee for president. History making in that he is the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee ever to run for president," Thompson said.

"We need a president who doesn't think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade," he said.

You had to wonder, where the hell was this fire, this almost volcanic passion on the campaign trail? More than once in the early going this year, Thompson oratorically underwhelmed several audiences. In St. Paul, with the pressure off, he was clearly in his element.

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But the unspoken issue — the 800-lb. moose in the room, if you will — is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s epiphanistic choice for his running mate. In five days Palin has put new controversial energy into a campaign that’s had plenty of it already. But there’s been uneasiness about her selection, its seeming suddenness, its overlooking of several other worthies for the vice presidency.

Some in the punditburo (including MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Keith Olbermann, both of whom oughta know better) have said that as of now, it’s essentially Sarah Palin’s convention, but that’s looking at it through too narrow a lens.

When Palin accepts the vice-presidential nomination on Wednesday, it’ll be nothing less than a John McCain moment. Sarah Palin wouldn’t be there without McCain having made this choice. What hairs stood up on the back of his neck when he decided on Palin? Was this a choice conjured from a Magic 8-Ball? What did he see in her, what did he sense in her without having seen her at all, that made him commit to the idea of making her a vice-presidential nominee?

The convention, and the nation, better get more than a glimpse of that on Wednesday night. Like it or not, Palin’s speech will be a snapshot referendum on John McCain’s judgment, his sense of who has the intellect, the wisdom and the inner fire to assume the office he seeks, if necessary, in the obligatory heartbeat. When she speaks, Sarah Palin needs to deliver John McCain — and needs to do it better than John McCain can deliver John McCain.

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We can see what’s probably coming right now: In prime-time on Wednesday, Gov. Sarah Palin will step in with an 0-2 count and knock it out of the park, or get close enough to an oratorical home run to satisfy the convention crowd … maybe enough to get independent votes pulling their chins again … maybe enough to get Team Obama brewing that extra pot of late-night coffee.

But that’s in the short term. The repercussions of McCain’s choice haven’t really appeared yet, for his campaign or his party. That news is just now, literally, breaking: The Washington Post is reporting that Palin was approved for the veep spot after undergoing the full in-depth background interview by campaign officials only the day before McCain offered her a spot on the ticket. The day before. You get more vetting than that applying for a job working the counter at Dairy Queen.

A proper vetting by Team McCain would have revealed that a special investigation is now underway into Palin's decision to fire the state Public Safety Commissioner; that Palin’s daughter has been pregnant since at least April; that her husband has reportedly been active in an Alaska secession movement; that Palin helped run Ted Stevens’ 527 political group —McCain’s opposition to such organizations has been a cornerstone of his campaign.

Oh, wait a minute — the McCain campaign knew all of this beforehand! None of this came as a surprise; none of it registered a moment's hesitation in the McCain brain trust.

The relative rashness of McCain’s decision, made apparently with only the lightest application of the vetting process, sears the Maverick brand into John McCain’s political persona in a way that’s actually counterproductive.

It arouses again the idea of McCain as impetuous, emotionally driven, less an agent of deliberation than of political volatility. It underscores for the American people the risks not of electing a maverick but of maybe electing the wrong kind of maverick — a new version of the tragic political iconoclast McCain seeks to replace.
Image credit: Magic 8-Ball: public domain.

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