03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Inevitable Fluke That Is Sarah Palin

Five minutes into yesterday's Oprah extravaganza with Sarah Palin, I messaged Steve Schmidt, John McCain's presidential campaign manager: "So how did you know Bristol was pregnant before it was announced?"

His immediate reply: "I didn't, untrue."

Palin had just said that Schmidt, the evident villain of her new book, Going Rogue, and other top McCain advisors had already known that her teenage daughter was pregnant with an illegitimate child and had marching orders for her even before she was picked as McCain's shock vice presidential nominee.

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Palin continued in a similar vein throughout her ballyhooed Oprah interview, constantly hitting the girrrl power/female victimization tropes of daytime TV, casting herself as an individual struggling against male control. Except, of course, for "God and Todd."

It's all a tissue of nonsense when you think about it, including her silly notion that an interview with the anchor of CBS News was supposed to be "light and fun." Whether Oprah really bought the act or not, she appeared to appreciate it. That is, after all, how it's done.

Which took me back to when I learned that the preposterous Palin had become the possible next vice president of the United States ...

Sarah Palin was a fluke. Had to be. A non-serious and irresponsible fluke. That was what I thought when I saw she was about to be named McCain's running mate on August 29, 2008.

I called Schmidt, McCain's campaign manager who I got to know well when he ran Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election as governor of California, to vent. Schmidt, a hardball if rather gentlemanly operator, had helped McCain spring back into real contention with Barack Obama, jamming the favorite with a series of effective if irritating tactics. (Remember Obama's brilliant international tour, blunted by the mocking TV ad: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world." That was Schmidt.) Such is politics, especially for the campaign with the weaker hand, so no personal venting was called for.

But Palin? I'd scouted her, which amounted to watching a few hours of video footage of her and reading some articles, and she was clearly a totally unqualified, and very vain, intellectual lightweight. And that was being kind. Compared to Palin, George W. Bush belonged on Mount Rushmore.

Palin pretended yesterday on Oprah to have been surprised that CBS News anchor Katie Couric asked her serious questions.

Palin was also, in retrospect, inevitable. Even though she was not the real first choice of McCain, Schmidt, and the rest of the campaign high command. Perhaps because she was not the real first choice.

Here's why.

Two years ago, McCain was struggling along, his once frontrunning candidacy having imploded due to his moderation on immigration and a few other issues and his discomfort from playing the establishment frontrunner. After McCain's campaign collapsed, I'd had lunch with Schmidt, joking that McCain must do as Chairman Mao advised when he said: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea."

Schmidt had decided to carry on with what his business partners referred to as his unpaid "hobby," and McCain had decided to do something "Mao-like" or at least a Republican variant. He traveled like a normal person, was very accessible, held free-wheeling town halls in his home away from home New Hampshire and a few other states. Freed from the pressure of being the national frontrunner, he recovered his mojo in a race that was still very winnable for him.

After he won New Hampshire, the far right went crazy, moving heavily into Stop McCain mode. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity inveighed against him at all hours of the day and night. The far right blogosphere was in high dudgeon over this "dangerous liberal" McCain.

The reality is that McCain is a conservative. He's much like Ronald Reagan, who would also face tremendously vicious yip-yap today in the party which purports to venerate him unless he moved further to the right.

The far right settled on the awkward figure of Mitt Romney to stop McCain. For some, like radio host Hugh Hewitt, who wrote a truly amazing biography of Romney (in which the corporate takeover artist flew over tall buildings), it was a matter of heavily willed suspension of disbelief that this Eastern economic royalist/social liberal was really a movement conservative. For others, it was simply a matter of stopping McCain, who once pissed all over their pretensions. Romney had adopted their rhetoric, fraudulent though his positioning was, and for them, that was enough.

With the Republicans' winner-take-all primary ways, and Romney not able to shut down Mike Huckabee, McCain rocked Romney to a dead stop in California and knocked him out the following week in Florida. He did this with the help of moderate Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Crist, both of whom are reviled by the far right.

But the far right, which amounts to a neo-Confederate political tendency, retained a simmeringly mutinous attitude, playing up sizable non-McCain votes as the primaries went on. Though they couldn't ever get behind Huckabee.

An interesting question is why they didn't get behind Huckabee instead of Romney. Huckabee is a real social conservative and a far better natural politician than the generally stiff Romney. But he's more of a populist than a royalist, and expressed concern about climate change. The dominant far right political tendency deeply identifies with entrenched wealth and authority, and disdains squishy notions like peace and the environment. Which is why Dick Cheney, of all people, is a patron saint of the far right.

So McCain and his advisors had a big problem going forward. The far right, with big megaphones in the form of Limbaugh, Hannity, et al was busily proclaiming that they were the real Republicans. And without the so-called "base," McCain had a built-in potshot press every day.

Palin was baffled by questions about the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Schmidt, who'd tooled around with McCain in rental cars and commercial flights during the rebuilding days of the campaign, had taken over its operations. Working with Schwarzenegger, he'd been at the controls of a smoothly running megabucks machine. But this, even after clinching the nomination, was definitely more ramshackle.

Especially compared with the humming Obama machine, raising money at a record clip, with volunteers all over America. Once the tussle with the Clintons was ended -- despite all the silly "Puma" hype, which never really amounted to much, though Schmidt and others had some hopes -- Obama had a happy and united party base on the left and and in the center.

When it came time to pick a potential vice president, the McCain high command had a series of not especially good choices.

My impression was that they liked Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, both personally and substantively. But he was not an inspiring figure and Obama was likely to win his state, as he did, easily.

Huckabee was a good campaigner and had good rapport with McCain. But you certainly couldn't have a creationist on the ticket. Right? And the Talk Radio Wing of the party hated him.

Palin now bashes the Wall Street bailout as an Obama scheme. Last year, when it was pushed through by George W. Bush, she backed it, but thought that it was about health care.

Romney was, let's say, not personally popular in McCain Land. The two seemed to viscerally dislike each other on stage, making the Obama-Hillary dynamic look like occasionally bickering lab partners. But he could bring some very big money to the table, if no real advantage in terms of states.

McCain wanted to tear it up and be the maverick by picking Joe Lieberman. Al Gore's running mate of 2000 would be his running mate of 2008.

But that wouldn't fly, as Team McCain learned when they took some soundings in the party. As much as much of the left hates Lieberman -- without whom, as Obama shrewdly realized, there would be no 60-vote Democratic majority in the Senate -- he is a dangerous liberal to the far right. Sure, he's a neo-Likudnik hawk. But beyond that he is essentially a moderate corporate liberal Democrat. And that is totally unacceptable to the Taliban of America's far right.

Other folks mentioned, the Rob Portman types, were largely unknown and were in no way game-changers.

For that was how the pick came to be framed.

Palin complains now that her brilliance was bottled up by Team McCain.

Most of what the McCain campaign did in the general election can be understood by understanding this: The presidency of the United States in 2008 was Barack Obama's to lose. That's the way the dynamics of history played out in 2008. If Obama became seen as a plausible president -- and McCain and his top people never bought the "birther" nonsense or the rest of the "Manchurian Candidate" fantasy so prevalent on the far right even today, though they played around with that fire -- and didn't make a big mistake, he would be the next president.

Unless they could alter the equation, distract from Obama's luster, trip him up. And they would need a big turnout of core conservative voters to be in the ballpark.

In that context, essentially a context of desperation -- and let's remember all the handwringing about Obama's chances amongst liberal Democrats going on throughout all this -- Sarah Palin made sense.

Except that she really didn't. Because she had no idea what she was talking about. Which is why I knew she was dead amongst independent voters, who don't necessarily like fancy credentials but demand basic knowledge.

And yet she really did make sense, very much so, politically, within the context of the Republican Party. Both through process of elimination -- see above -- and in terms of activating conservative activists and turning on grassroots conservative contributors.

I thought from the beginning she would backfire, and wrote it again after she gave her big speech at the Republican national convention, which had most pundits swooning. And that proved to be the case.

Palin brought a lot of energy -- mostly of the angry, backlash variety -- to the McCain ticket. But in the end, because of her fundamental ignorance and negativity, she made it impossible for McCain to win.

Now, let me say that I have always liked McCain. I don't agree with him on everything, to say the least, but I think he is a good man in a very flawed system.

I had hoped for a different sort of campaign between my favorite Democrat and my favorite Republican. That was too idealistic of me. For that sort of campaign would have guaranteed an Obama victory. Naturally, McCain decided not to play along, as, like most politicians, he would rather take a shot at winning than settle for an honorable defeat.

That also brought us Sarah Palin.

But what really made Palin the inevitable fluke that she is is the nature of the current Republican Party.

A once great party has turned into a neo-Confederate political party, looking for a very shallow, mean, dishonest, know-nothing version of Ronald Reagan. And in Sarah Palin, it has found it.

America doesn't buy her as a potential president. Especially after she bizarrely quit as governor of small state Alaska halfway through her only term.

But in a multi-candidate winner take all GOP primary scenario, she could definitely walk away with the party's presidential nomination. And in the meantime, her poisonous brand of charisma will continue to infect Republicans, meaning that all of national politics will continue to be infected with a vicious virus of dishonest, know-nothing hyper-partisanship.