The choice of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate on the McCain ticket seemed somewhat mystifying at first. The stories that have followed have made it even more so. Few politicians in American history have been put through such a wringer so quickly. Just stunning. Even Sen. Thomas "Shock Therapy" Eagleton, another candidate who was minimally vetted at best, didn't get hammered so hard so quickly on so many fronts.
The laundry list of Palin's problems need not be repeated here -- a quick glance at HuffPost's Palin page will suffice for a summation. Instead, at this point, we have to ask ourselves not who or what, but why and how. How is it that John McCain -- already on the downturn in the polls and facing an election battle that allowed precious little room for error against a candidate and a campaign that, in a drawn-out primary battle, proved extremely adept at the Great Game of Political Warfare -- chose as his running mate a barely vetted, inexperienced young governor from a state with little electoral consequence whose opinions on the Iraq War range from its a "task from God" to its a war for oil, and whose positions on most of the issues of the day range from backward to nonexistent? In the highly plotted-out, carefully choreographed world of presidential politics, it just doesn't seem possible.
But when I look at the scheme with the right kind of eyes, I can see that Sarah Palin was the only possible out McCain had. He needed someone who built up his own tarnished image as a reformer -- a "maverick" if you insist on using perhaps the most overused word in political bull-speak (though "bold" and "visionary" are both up there). He needed someone who could help him take some of the change argument away from Obama; after all, Hillary Clinton proved that merely running on experience is not enough in this election cycle.
The obvious choices were moderates -- middle-of-the-road guys who have a proven ability to work across party lines and kowtow to people who believe the opposite of everything for which the other party stands. For reasons I can't possibly explain, these quislings are seen as high-minded in today's political climate, and none is more well-known for his bipartisan approach than Joe Lieberman. So it comes as no surprise that McCain would have picked Lieberman if only the decision were entirely up to him.
But of course, it could never happen like that, because the pro-life crowd would have collectively mimicked that seen from Scanners where the guy's head explodes. Sarah Palin, more than any other politician today, appeases this base while coming off as a reform-minded moderate. She's the best poison pill the GOP could find. And indeed, I can't think of anyone else who would better satisfy the hardcore anti-abortion wing while also attempting to play to McCain's strengths.
The obvious answer here, of course, is that if McCain wanted the middle, he would have to cut loose the Religious Right, something he can ill afford to do. And that makes not just 2008, but the next several election cycles, big ones for the Democrats. After all, the Dems cut loose their bigoted base back when President Johnson signed civil-rights legislation and, more recently, Democratic politicians have talked less and less about gun control, realizing that there's a whole swath of voters who would vote for the Dems if only they weren't afraid that the ATF would be lining up to take their guns.
The Republicans had two choices here: Move toward the future and ditch the folks who want to teach creationism in science class, prevent stem-cell research because it's mass murder, and believe man and dinosaur co-existed in some sort of Flintstone-like fantasyland. Or, they could move to the base and, in the tried and true practice of Karl Rove and his ilk, whip that base up while ignoring the middle and squeeze conservatives for every vote they're worth in a 50.1-percent version of democracy. By choosing Palin, McCain has tried to split the middle but satisfied neither. And if the GOP wants a viable future, they should probably start thinking real hard about what that future looks like.