In Washington, and around the world, we are waiting for the first torpedo to hit the hull, as they say. Having been broadsided ourselves in the extraordinary selection of Sarah Palin by John McCain for his running mate, we who cover politics are treading water.
Predictably the polemicists are out in front praising, or damning, with a terrible tribal loyalty. If the tribal leader says it is so, so it is. And why not say it is brilliant, or catastrophic, while you are about it? Talk is cheap, and the Internet and talk radio makes it plentiful. Oh so plentiful.
Nobody really will have much idea about Palin until that first torpedo fired is on its way. It could be a gaff on economics or foreign policy or something her Democratic antagonists have dug up from what appears to be a Doris Day past. We will begin to know her by how she responds.
We know that she is a kind cartoon Westerner, a huntin’, fishin’, gun-totin’ Annie Oakley who is going to draw a bead on easy money in Congress and easy virtue along K Street. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know all about that one. We also know that, with the exception of Dick Cheney, no vice president has had the power to effect much.
If the heroin from the tundra makes it to Washington, Palin will have to do more than face down oil lobbyists and wayward legislators; her big challenge will be the party chiefs and their financiers who helped get her elected.
Washington may be corrupted by special interests, but it is also sustained by them. Lobbyists not only control a lot of campaign money they also own a lot of knowledge. Because they know the industries they represent, in a complex world, legislators need lobbyists–lobbyists they feel they can trust. At some level, every expert is a lobbyist. There are precious few people with deep knowledge on any subject who do not hold opinions about what they know. The smart legislator can sort out the frauds, like Abramoff, from those who work in the vineyards and know the grapes.
The selection Sarah Palin tells us very little about her. But it tells us, again, mountains about John McCain. (Disclosure: I have known McCain almost since he came to Washington, and he has spoken at defense conferences I used to organize.)
Yes, what McCain’s pick again tells us about McCain is that he is the most capricious of senators, and that he can see no contradiction in his own contradictory positions. McCainism is not conservatism. It is a view of the world peculiar to the man who holds it. His grip on Republican orthodoxy, outside of a right to life and a strong military, is tenuous.
Most of the delegates now assembling in St. Paul would, one suspects, leave a private chat with the man they are about to nominate shaking their heads. They believe money is speech, he does not. They believe in drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he does not. It goes on and on.
More, they are opposed to tokenism and quotas. But in selecting Palin, McCain has perpetrated what must be the most cynical act of tokenism and quota acceptance in recent political history. He also has again demonstrated his unique capacity to be on both sides of an issue.
McCain’s rap on Barack Obama is that he is inexperienced. Now McCain has propelled the neophyte’s neophyte into the small group of people who might sit in the Oval Office and lead the free world. Nearly one in three vice presidents have become president. And McCain is not a young man.
His choice of Palin suggests that McCain is either a cynic or a fatalist—much more likely the later. The fatalist has no faith in orderly progression, but expects happenstance to intrude and change the course of events. It was fate that got McCain shot down and captured. It is McCain coercing fate that has put Palin on the national stage. Win or lose, she will be there for a long time.