It is an inescapable rule of politics that defeat breeds recrimination, and the bitter aftermath of the 2008 election is no exception. Hardly had Barack Obama swept to a resounding victory on November 4th, than anonymous insiders in the McCain campaign began feeding political reporters a too-convenient-by-half theory to explain the electoral rout. In brief, it was all Sarah Palin’s fault.
Most sensational in this vein is the claim that Palin’s supposed intellectual deficiencies were one of the downfalls of the campaign. Thus, in the past few weeks alone, McCain aides have accused Palin of being so politically clueless that she could not name the participating nations in the North American free-trade agreement and so geographically unlettered that she did not know that Africa is a continent and not a country. Even Palin’s family has become an object of internecine derision, charmlessly described by one disgruntled McCain advisor as “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.”
Palin’s putative ignorance is but one of the flaws that allegedly undid the McCain campaign. If the mudslingers are to be believed, Palin used her ascendance to the Republican ticket as cynical self-promotion. In the days leading up the election, whispering from McCain aides gave rise to the notion that Palin had “gone rogue” and was seeking the limelight at the expense of John McCain, a narrative that was repeated without scepticism by a press eager to see the worst in the popular Alaska governor. In countless news stories, McCain aides were quoted calling Palin a “diva” out for herself, an ideologue “who takes no advice from anyone,” even a crazed “whack job.” As if this were insufficiently damning, one unnamed McCain aide lamented that Palin “does not have any relationships of trust with any of us.” Given the daily barrage of defamatory leaks against her, this complaint was all too credible.
But the rest was dubious at best. For the record, Palin has said that her comments about NATO and Africa were quoted out of context. The Africa charge turns out to be a hoax. In any case, it’s hard to see why Palin's gaffes merit the significance that has been attached to them. On a campaign stop in Oregon this summer, Barack Obama famously claimed to have visited “fifty seven states” and insisted that he still had “one left to go.” Joseph Biden, a one-man compendium of political faux pas, offered this history of the Great Depression in September: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.’” It was an interesting account, all the more so given that Herbert Hoover was president during the Great Depression and televisions were not made available to the mass public until the late 1930s. That the indisputably bright Obama won the election handily suggests that such gaffes are not a reliable indicator of intelligence – let a lone a convincing explanation of why McCain lost.
It is likewise difficult to lend credence to claims that Palin went “rogue.” This charge seems largely based on Palin’s telling a reporter that she disagreed with McCain strategists’ decision to suspend the campaign in Michigan in the first week of October. It may well be that the strategists were right on the merits. McCain ultimately lost the state by 16 percentage points and some 800,000 votes. But if a determination to keep fighting for votes in the face of adversity is now to be considered a sign of a vice presidential candidate’s unfitness, it has to be asked why the running mate exists in the first place.
If McCain aides’ disdain for Palin has garnered such popular notice, the reason seems to have less to do with the substance of their animus than with the fact that it flatters the prejudices of the Palin’s critics on the Democratic Left and anti-populist Right. For her services to the McCain campaign, Palin has been mocked as an intellectual lightweight and faux-populist, tarred as a religious fanatic and a secessionist, dismissed as a McCarthyite demagogue and declared nothing less than the enemy of reason. In the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that she “represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party,” a charge echoed in the Economist, which accused her of “bringing out the worst in her party.” A marginal but much-noticed chorus of “Obamacons,” including most prominently Christopher Buckley, son of the late William F. Buckley, publically turned against McCain for no other reason than a felt dislike for his vice presidential pick.
No mystery surrounds the Left’s hatred of Palin. She energized a Republican Party that was at best halfhearted about its presidential nominee, attracting thousands to her rallies (a late October rally in Missouri brought out at least 13,000 Palin supporters, numbers rivaled only by Barack Obama himself) and almost single-handedly nullifying Obama’s expected poll bounce following the Democratic National Convention. It bears remembering that the one and only time that McCain pulled even with Obama in the race was after Palin’s addition to the ticket. One wouldn’t expect Democrats to admire these achievements. Less clear is why the McCain’s campaign operatives should find them so blameworthy.
Unless, of course, the idea is to deflect blame from their own missteps, of which there were many. In a politically unfavorable year for Republicans, McCain’s occasional policy incoherence – in one presidential debate, he unveiled new spending programs within minutes of promising a spending freeze – and his erratic behavior amid the recent financial crisis, when he needlessly suspended his campaign, only complicated the unlikely task of a McCain victory. Indeed, absent the grassroots enthusiasm generated by Sarah Palin, McCain’s margin of defeat may well have been larger than seven points that it was.
The truly strange aspect of the anti-Palin blowback from inside the McCain campaign is not that it has emerged – one wouldn’t expect the architects of an ineptly run campaign to do anything so drastic as accept responsibility – but that it has gone on as long as it has. Whatever the flaws of John McCain the presidential candidate, John McCain the man has never been one to evade responsibility. He could prove it again by standing up for a woman who did far more to make his campaign competitive than the aggrieved strategists now determined to blame her for its failure.