10/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin Uncorked! Or, How to Manage Expectations Tonight

And to think I decided not to go the DNC. "Too boring!" I said to myself. Who knew?

Now, I'm obsessively following the furious debate about Palin and the furious meta-debate about the Palin Effect from home. What's shocking to me is that anyone thinks the Palin Effect is a net positive. Perhaps, if the GOP gets lucky, they'll be able to finesse it back to neutral, but right now it feels like The Sorcerer's Apprentice. As if McCain's Campaign Manager, Steve Schmidt, found Rove's wand laying around and said, "I wonder if this thing works?" And -- Shazam! -- everything seemed OK for about twenty four hours, until, soon enough, there were all these little brooms running around and water from Gustav sloshing everywhere and the chaos drowned out the planned message. Uncharacteristically, the Republicans lost control of the story. For the masters of scripted political theater, that can't be anything but a disaster.


They wanted to stop the Obamatrain and get people talking about something else. Well: Mission accomplished! Everyone's talking about how Gustav will affect Palin's daughter's baby daddy's MySpace page and whether McCain knew any of this when he signed on his second in command after one meeting and a phone call.

What people are not talking about is anything that will make voters think twice about Obama, which is what the Republicans needed to do. As a GOP insider lamented to the National Journal in the most telling summary of this year's election strategy: “"There’s no rebuilding the GOP brand...We need to bring [Democrats] down to our level.”"

They just lost several critical days of their big opportunity to do that. As of now, Palin has backfired: they hoped the surprise of the small-town girl with five kids and snowmobiling, union husband would naturally segue into their convention message, a diabolical mixture of two parts scurrilous attack, one part schmaltzy McCain biography.

But instead the Palin surprise segued into...more Palin surprises.

Troopergate. The Alaskan Independence Party. The baby daddy who didn't want kids. Palin was FOR the Bridge to Nowhere. Oh, and earmarks too. A lot of earmarks. That's why she hired a lobbyist from Team Abramoff. And also why she was for Ted Stevens before she was against him. She was even a Director of his 527. All of which she either omitted or lied about just last Friday.

Sure they're trying to spin it -- "We actually wanted all these little brooms running around here getting us all wet! And by the way, ambulatory brooms carrying buckets are Authentic America!" -- but on the whole, the storyline has been defensive. Of course, they've managed to spin their way out of shit-storms before, but for the GOP to be off-message for several news cycles seems like a sign of frailty.

Yes, some of the points about Palin have been parried. And some are irrelevant, like her daughter's pregnancy. And Lieberman tried to breath a little life into the corpse of Reformer McCain last night. But half the surprises about Palin put a serious dent in that reformer message, undermining what's left of their campaign now that they gave up on experience. The Bridge and Ted Stevens and the earmarks -- to mix my magical metaphors, there's no way to get all those genies back in the bottle.

Not that they won't try. As of today, Steve Schimdt is trying to blame the press for McCain's bad choice, complaining, of all things, the the public vetting of the candidate they forgot to vet is unfair.

Newsflash: the media's job is provide information, especially about an unknown Vice Presidential pick. That's why you don't make unknown picks. If they had fired up the Old Romneytronic, none of this would be happening. But as always, they'll try to turn lemons into lemonade by hitting back at the media. The idea is to manage expectations for Palin's speech tonight. Maybe if we all feel bad about exposing Palin's checkered record, we'll give her a pass on the speech. It makes sense: when losing, play to the refs.

But the details of Palin's record are why the bar should be extremely high for Palin's speech. That's the price of A) harboring a walk-in-closet full of skeletons, and B) being talked up as some kind of silver bullet. Way back at the DNC -- remember that? -- all Biden had to do was connect with the Regular Joes. Obama had to show he could fight back with some hard policy behind the grand vision. They did those things. But Palin can't just give a longer version of the speech she gave on Friday. In fact, she has to answer for that speech, because of the fibbing. Being a right wing populist heroine isn't going to cut it. That might get the base excited. But we know Palin will get the base excited. She needs to do more than that. Recall that Palin was rolled out as an ersatz Hillary and surefire bootstrap reformer. For the speech to be measured a success, she has to somehow prove that she is both of those things. Which she isn't.

I'm sure there will be some rhetorical zingers and clever framing of Palin's supposed reformer credentials. But what kind of reformer is for the Bridge to Nowhere and then lies about it in her introduction to the American people? The GOP realizes that the Maverick/Reformer theme is the only way to save the week, which is why that story needs to be stopped in its tracks tonight. Luckily, it's not true. I know Republicans don't like facts, but sometimes facts are sticky. Especially the ones in Palin's record.