The way John McCain handled his running mate Sarah Palin’s Big Moment at the GOP convention in St. Paul tells us one of two things about the man. Either he’s extremely lucky or he would have made one hell of a general. If his handling of the vice presidential rollout doesn’t demonstrate a finely tuned strategic sense, what could?
We know a few things about McCain’s choice of Palin for his running mate with some certainty. We know, for instance, that he met with her and liked her. We know he decided that many would-be Hillary voters could be won over with a little girrrl power on the ticket. That’s what both he and Palin played up when they announced her candidacy at an Ohio rally the day after the Democratic convention.
And we know he had a huge conservative problem that simply had to be dealt with for the Republicans to have a shot in November.
The McCain campaign has claimed that Palin disclosed to them that her eldest daughter was pregnant before the choice was made to put her on the GOP ticket. The official story is that McCain took this into account and decided to choose her for VP anyway, bad press be damned.
There were decent reasons to doubt this claim, starting with the fact that McCain’s aides seemed to be freaking out about it.
Palin only publicly disclosed the inconvenient truth to rebut a vicious rumor that her baby boy Trig was actually her grandson. McCain and his handlers unexpectedly began attacking the press for looking into the matter. Palin was ordered to lie low and cancel her planned appearance at a pro-life lunch put on by that grand old gal of the right, Phyllis Schlafly. It was shaping up to be a public relations nightmare.
However, I believe John McCain when he says that he had full knowledge of the pregnancy when he was weighing his vice presidential pick. Further, he probably had some idea of the tremendous pressure this would place on Palin. Indeed, he wanted it that way.
That explanation is the best fit with his actions. He not only publicly supported the Alaska governor, he supported her in a way that was a thumb in the eye socket of polite opinion. He lashed out at the media for going there and he had his spokespeople press the message further, as a way of drumming up interest in the Alaska hockey mom-statesman.
Had McCain wanted Bristol Palin’s fiance Levi Johnston out of the picture for the convention, the teen would have been secreted away in an undisclosed Alaska location. Again, McCain didn’t do that. He met the Palins at the airport, shaking hands with Levi, and patting him on the back, which was a preview of the family’s full court press at the convention.
So McCain worked overtime to bring the controversy to a boil, he ordered Palin to keep quiet until her convention speech, and he at least didn’t discourage her from bringing her controversy-wracked family along. His people picked a fight with the press, which only turned up the flames. And when Rudy Giuliani went a bit long, Palin was sent out to meet her public without a video bio to soften the mood. It was a make or break moment, and the lady didn’t break.
It’s possible everything just banked the right way. But my sense is that McCain knew what he was doing. He wasn’t just prepping Palin for a big speech. He was working her up before sending her into battle — for her hometown, for her family, for everything she had worked hard for up to that point. That makes him a little bit cruel, but one can’t quibble with the results.