Swinging for the fences

In the days running up to and during the Democratic convention, the McCain campaign was airing a series of he’s-not-ready attack ads on Barack Obama. But privately, McCain insiders were acknowledging they’d run out that string. For 18 months Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had pounded away on experience and came in second. One McCain adviser told me the experience theme was a dry hole. They’d already gotten all they were going to get with that argument, and it was well short of an electoral majority.

“So where do you go from here?” I asked.

“We swing for the fences” was the reply. As former McCain message guru, Mike Murphy, said on “Meet the Press” this week, the “Republican Officer Corps” was deeply troubled after the Democrats’ extravaganza in Denver. He added that you don’t win a change election with a campaign that reminds people how long you’ve been part of the system.

For many of us, “swinging for the fences” meant Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a close friend and vocal supporter of McCain’s. He would have certainly sent a message that McCain was willing to shake up the system. An Indepublican choice shows you are willing to work across party lines, scrap politics-as-usual and present a strong unified defense ticket. Inside reports say Lieberman was McCain’s first choice and he stubbornly stuck with it, probably too long.

Problem was, the Republican right wouldn’t hear of it. There were threats of a floor fight over the liberal Lieberman and even over the more conservative former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, because of his pro-choice record, although no one could question his national security credentials. John McCain was already having trouble on his right flank, and while a floor fight might have made an exciting convention show for delegates in the mid-20th century, it was anathema in today’s 24/7 news cycle.

So what does a maverick personality like John McCain do when his party’s right wing says he can’t have what he wants? He doesn’t just swing for the fences, he leaves the ballpark and returns with a VP choice precious few have heard of and no one, not even McCain, knows much about. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is a classic McCain move: a “take this” response. It may turn out to have been a brilliant decision, it may be a disaster or — more likely — it will be a push.

The charismatic Palin seems to be bringing the right, especially evangelicals, back to the McCain camp with enthusiasm. That is good news for a campaign that was struggling to hold its base. However, her pro-life, creationism, gun-toting, drill-everywhere, pro-big business positions are unlikely to hold the suburban women and even blue-collar Hillary Clinton voters McCain hoped to attract. Palin’s image as a reformer, an iconoclast and a maverick willing to take on her own party may well be damaged with the flood of stories about playing personal politics in Alaska — a small state where it is normal to reward your friends and punish your enemies — that has emerged as reporters scramble to figure out just who she is. Despite the tabloid fodder of her personal life, so far nothing has surfaced that would crater a campaign (remember Tom Eagleton?) but there may be enough smoke to obscure the fire of enthusiasm that swept Republican delegates after her introduction.

Most likely, however, her spot on the ticket will not have much influence. She’s returned the faithful to the fold but shows little chance of delivering Hillary Democrats and may actually turn off some Republican women. A lot will depend on the role Hillary Clinton chooses to play. If she takes the message “a woman, yes — but not this woman” on the campaign trail, Palin’s influence outside the GOP core will be minimal. And ultimately, Americans elect a president, not a president-in-waiting. That’s the lesson Dan Quayle taught us.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com