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Can McCain fix his Palin problem?

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

September 27, 2008 | 6:17 pm

Ever since the quick burst of celebrity that accompanied her surprise selection for the vice president numination, it’s been all downhill for Palin. 

Her public approval has been dropping steadily in recent weeks, and perhaps even more damaging has been the general sense in the political world that she is not remotely up for the job.  Her two television interviews, with Charles Gibson and then with Katie Couric, were beyond awful.  They were close to unwatchable.

And she’s become a light-night TV comedy staple.

I am a pretty solid softball player, and occasionally have dreamed of playing center field for the New York Yankees.  But I imagine that if I faced a major league pitcher throwing a fastball, I’d look about like Palin did.

The problem is that McCain gave almost no thought to his vice presidential selection.  Like many of things he has done in this campaign, it seems to have been done on impulse with the goal of shaking things up.  Now that the bloom has come off the rose, what does he do next?  He has until Thursday’s vice presidential debate to think of something, or to hope for a crisis that can require her to avoid the debate.  (Perhaps Alaska has to go on alert in case Russian President Putin flies over.  See what I mean about comedy?)

In the meantime, I can see where this is heading.  After the first presidential debate, Obama’s vice presidential choice Joe Biden was all over the news talking about the event.  Palin was nowhere to be seen.  She turned down interview requests.  But in recent days it hasn’t been hard to find Mitt Romney on the talk circuit supporting McCain.  Now of course lots of people thought that even though McCain apparently can’t stand Romney, that he would have been a better choice if anybody could have predicted the Wall Street meltdown.  Romney is big on economic stuff.

My sense is that the short term strategy will be to keep Palin in hiding as much as possible, and turn the functional role of vice presidential candidate over to Romney.  That way, the Republican base that loves Palin (although not as much as originally) won’t be mad and McCain can seem like he has a real running mate.

The implication will be that McCain and Romney will run things if McCain is elected, so don’t you worry your pretty little self about Palin.  Voters who are worried that she might become president will still worry.  The odds are that other key Republicans will fall in line to provide that support in Palin’s absence.

Now I don’t know how long this can work, especially if the Thursday debate is actually held, and if it is a catastrophe for Palin.  And if she does well, McCain can’t really hide her for the rest of the campaign.  There’s a lot at stake for Palin on Thursday, but expectations are so low that she might manage to get through it in better fashion than we think.

Another alternative that I think is at least possible is Palin’s exit from the ticket.  Easy come, easy go.  A non-vetted selection, no investment by the candidate.

So far, McCain’s campaign has been marked by wild roundhouse punches thrown in the late rounds looking for a “change of chemistry.”  Some work, some don’t.

The latest one, the attempt to get out of the first debate, was a dud.  But I could see him thinking that if Palin leaves (on her own accord, of course, to deal with a family issue) then the media will be fascinated by who takes her place. 

The replacement can’t be a pro choice moderate because the base will go nuts and might even spawn a third-party writein campaign.  It has to be somebody that the base will accept, and that is probably Romney.  This move can’t be made unless Romney agrees in advance to join the ticket.  He might even challenge Biden to a do-over of the vice presidential debate, or if it happens before Thursday, who knows?

There would have to be a lot of talk on the Republican right about this, comparable to the discussions that alerted McCain that he had better not choose a pro-choice running mate.

Don’t ask me if any of this makes sense, because trying to predict what McCain will do next is not only baffling to me, but probably to his own staff as well.

But I do think it’s a reasonable possibility that if Palin continues to head downhill that McCain will do something dramatic to get out of that situation.

The last presidential candidate with this kind of problem was George H.W. Bush and his vice president, Dan Quayle.  Bush took fierce criticism but hung on, and won handily even though later surveys found that Quayle did cost him votes.  But that was a traditional Republican campaign, businesslike and tough, and Bush simply decided to bear the cost of Quayle. 

We’ll see if that is the model adopted by McCain or if we are due for another Hail Mary.




Raphael J Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester as the Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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