Archive for the 'Palin' Category

In 2010, will Sarah Palin be the new George W. Bush?

If it was impossible to determine Sarah Palin’s motivations in the days following her resignation announcement, it has since become clear that she has no intention of stepping out of the spotlight. While we’ve all been watching to see whether she would retreat from public life, the Alaska Governor has kept up her role as the GOP’s perpetual star and permanent attack dog.

In an interview published in Time, Palin insisted that all options are “on the table” about and blasted the administration’s domestic policies. “President Obama is growing government outrageously, and it’s immoral and it’s uneconomic, his plan that he tries to sell America,” she said. She has also announced that one of her first post-resignation outings would be an August 8th event at the Reagan library. And she gave an interview to the Washington Times, making it clear that she plans to jump immediately back into the national political fray.

So much for the hopes that the July 3rd press conference would be the last we would see of Palin.

What are Palin’s intentions, then? “I’m not ruling out anything — it is the way I have lived my life from the youngest age,” she explained. “Let me peek out there and see if there’s an open door somewhere. And if there’s even a little crack of light, I’ll hope to plow through it.” Thankfully, Palin has a more definite idea of what she wants to do with herself in the coming months:

I will go around the country on behalf of candidates who believe in the right things, regardless of their party label or affiliation.

Regardless of party label? Now, that’s a twist! We surely expected Palin to travel the GOP circuit: If she is interested in 2012’s presidential nomination, the only way for her to overcome worries about her motivation and her electability is to launch herself in the 2010 midterms and help her fellow Republicans win congressional and gubernatorial victories - by raising money, campaigning, sending over PAC donations. These candidates would then be indebted to her and thus far more likely to endorse her presidential bid.

But helping Democrats is quite another story. The rest of Palin’s interview reveals what she’s thinking: “Republicans, now trailing Democrats and independents in registration in many states, should back moderate to conservative Democrats in congressional districts and states where Republicans stand almost no chance of winning.” In short, Palin wants to mount some type of coordinated effort to get conservative activists living in staunchly liberal districts to vote in the Democratic primary.

This is technically difficult to pull-off - many states don’t allow registered Republicans to participate in Democratic primaries, so would Palin advocate a change in their affiliation at the risk of shrinking the GOP further? - and it doesn’t make a ton of sense politically. If there are really enough Republicans in the district that a campaign to get them involved might make a difference, it’s probably also possible - difficult, but possible - for the GOP to outright win the seat.

Most importantly, Palin seems as unaware as ever about her own unpopularity. Does she realize what it would do to a Democrat’s campaign if she was seen as helping his bid in any way, shape or form?

Palin retains a strong following, but her name remains toxic among all Democrats and most independents; her decision to resign makes it highly unlikely she’ll have any way of correcting that before 2012. If she were to suggest support for a Democrat, his opponent would have a field day associating him to the GOP’s fringe right and liberals voters would suddenly get motivated. That would far outweigh any benefit the candidate might receive from conservative voters willing to crossover.

Of course, many Republican candidates will face the same problem. Unless they’re running in a staunchly conservative state or district (say, Texas Governor Rick Perry who is delighted to receive Palin’s help), it is a huge risk for them to have the Alaska Governor campaign by their side. Palin’s visit would receive more coverage in the local press than most other of the campaign events and it would motivate the left as much as the right.

Don’t forget that many Democrats are worried that their base will turn out in far lower numbers in 2010 than it did in 2008, putting them at a disadvantage over fired up conservatives looking to punish the White House. Palin’s presence on the trail would offer Democrats an opportunity to address their fear of a turnout differential.

As such, Palin has become as huge a dilemma for the GOP as George W. Bush was over the past two cycles. The president still motivated the Republican base and remained a strong fundraiser; but for a candidate to get associated with him provided Democrats so much fodder that a presidential visit was just not worth the trouble. Early indications suggest that Republicans looking to win competitive races will treat Palin in the same exact way - New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bill McDonnell have already signaled that Palin is not welcome to campaign by their side - but in doing so they risk attracting the wrath of conservative activists.

Palin’s resignation, take 2

Once again, the political world is buzzing about Sarah Palin. 10 months after John McCain’s ushered her on the national stage, the ambitious Alaska Governor abruptly exited the one elected office she’s ever held over a jurisdiction of more than 6,000 inhabitants.

As was the case for much of the 2008 election, Palin remains an enigma. Her persona, her politics and her rhetoric could hardly be more predictable; but how can we not be continuously stunned by her ability to gather huge and adoring crowds, by her willingness to make unconventional decisions, by the sincerity of her disregard for the value of truth and by her apparent conviction that making Bush look like a policy wonk is an asset?

Palin’s latest move is jaw-dropping not only because no one saw it coming but because she offered no clear explanation for resigning. She gave the impression that she simply woke up one morning and decided she had had enough, which raises obvious questions about her reliability and about how seriously she was taking her job.

I have been trying to think of any other politician who similarly walked away from an office for no clearly stated reason. The only person I can think of who comes remotely close is former Senator Trent Lott, who outrageously quit his Senate position a year before his term was up in order to take a lobbying job just before a new ethics law restricting the options of former legislators was to come into effect. [Correction: A commenter rightly corrects me and points out that Lott resigned a year into his term - which  in my opinion only makes it worse.] Given that Palin’s resignation might also have been motivated by the quest of financial profit, pointing to Lott’s precedent will not help her look any less bizarre.

Of course, the Governor didn’t even explain her decision as much as Lott had. Her decision looks so irrational that it is beyond defense, beyond justification. Sure, government would be better if politicians were more willing to resign, but that doesn’t make it okay to abandon your responsibilities without any change in circumstances.

Palin looks to be just as confused than we are. Her rambling statement made Mark Sanford’s press conference look like model of coherence. She mentioned her family and the financial costs of responding to ethical inquiries. She explained that she did not want to be one of those lame-duck governors who stays in office despite announcing a retirement, which is apparently a symptom of conventional thinking (if every term-limited governor resigned a few months into a second term, imagine how much chaos there would be) but insisted that she wants to keep fighting for her causes.

(I do hope that Palin’s defenders will stop referring to her desire to be with her family, however. After the 2008 campaign in which her entourage expressed outrage that anyone would question that a woman can occupy public office while having young children, it would be quite a setback for future female candidates if Palin used an inability to balance these commitments as an excuse for quitting the governorship.)

Thus, my initial take was probably flawed because I started off assuming that the Governor had some plan. Most of my analysis concerned her resignation’s consequences on an eventual presidential bid but I am now willing to believe that no such bid is in the works. In fact, I don’t think anything is in the works. Palin decided that she was fed up with the governorship, posited that she’ll have an easier time doing the things she loves away from Juneau and she walked away.

As such, it is useless to try and read the Palin tea leaves: It’s unlikely the Governor has made any final decision about anything - let alone about 2012. Andrea Mitchell has been reporting that Palin is through with politics and that “she has told some of her biggest backers in the national Republican party that they are free to chose other candidates for 2012;” other journalists are not drawing similar conclusions. In short, I find it just as likely that we’ll soon see Palin in Iowa than that this press conference was her last major political appearance!

On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine this woman, who looked so eager not only to gain further power but also to take on the liberal forces and the cultural elites that she thinks are ruining the country, suddenly sitting on the sidelines. She could find a compromise path between outright retirement and elected politics, one that would allow her to draw on the devotion of the conservative base without having to put up with “frivolous” ethical charges like those her rival dare bring up.

She has many other options in front of her. She could reinvent herself as a perpetual Republican star, a permanent ex-politician like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich; in this regard, her status as a former vice-presidential nominee and her popularity among the party’s base would outweigh her meager record. She could also become a media professional - take a job at Fox News, follow Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough’s footsteps - or on the commentary circuit, like Ann Coulter.

I expect it to take years for Palin to decide whether she will pursue a presidential bid, whether she wants to distance herself from the public stage and whether she wants to try out another path. If she chooses the former option, she seriously damaged her viability after yesterday’s development and I can’t imagine how she’ll overcome the stain of her resignation. But she keeps enough of a following that she could make other options work out far better.

Palin’s decision matters in Alaska, too

While most of my analysis has been devoted to the national consequences of Palin’s move, it obviously shakes up Alaska. Just a year ago, before she was tapped as McCain’s running mate, the Governor looked to be taking a firm hold of her state’s GOP against her inner-party rivals. Now, her departure will elevate LG Sean Parnell as Governor and make the 2010 cycle that much more interesting.

Two politician who’s likely delighted by Palin’s decision are Parnell and Rep. Don Young, the ethically embattled congressman who barely survived a primary challenge by Parnell last year; a rematch might have been in the work in 2010, but Young can now breath easier since Parnell will run for re-election next year. As for Parnell, he’ll obviously have an easier time running for Governor: Had Palin retired, this staunch conservative would have faced a potentially tricky open gubernatorial race but he will now have the upper-hand in what should still be a contested primary.

As for Democrats, they will no doubt have a harder time contesting the seat than if it had been an open race, but it’s not like they’re giving up that much: state Sen Hollis French, former Commissioner of Administration Bob Poe and Ethan Berkowitz could all make credible candidates, but the past three cycles (Murkowski against Knowles, Palin versus Knowles, Stevens versus Begich, Young versus Berkowitz) demonstrated that Alaska is one of the country’s most reliably Republican states.

In shocking move, Palin announces resignation

In a shocking move that defies all expectations, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced she would resign by the end of the month in a press conference held this afternoon at her private Alaska home.

Many expected Palin simply to announce that she would not seek her second term, which would have been easy enough to explain given her presidential ambitions. It’s tough to run a presidential campaign while serving as Governor, especially when we’re talking about Alaska’s chief executive. Add to that the stain of the mounting ethical complaints she’s facing and the fact that she’d only be following Romney and Pawlenty’s footsteps, and it made sense for Palin to retire.

But to outright resign, and to do so having barely passed the halfway point of her first term?

If she runs for president, how will she possibly be able to justify her choice not to finish her first term? How can she get Americans vote for a quitter who got tired of her responsibilities after only 30 months? It would be political suicide for her to admit that she did it to prepare a presidential run (giving up an elected office for contest that is three and a half years away signals a level of ambition and irresponsibility voters are bound to reject) but what other explanations can she provide?

How will she argue that she has the requisite experience when voters found her lacking in 2008? Last fall, she introduced herself to America as a small town mayor and a two year Governor.It is insane to think that Palin could present herself in 2012 having added nothing other to her resume than eight more months as Alaska’s chief executive. I simply do not see how Palin can overcome this.

What is most extraordinary is that Palin seems determined to inhabit her own caricature. She has often been criticized for lacking seriousness, for her low interest in substantive issues and for her inability to work on the unglamorous nitty-gritty. So what does Palin do? Instead of proving her critics wrong by spending the next eighteen months concentrating on state politics, beefing up her policy knowledge and proving that she is interested enough in the duties of governing not to be distracted by the next shiny thing, she simply quits.

Her failure to address any of the traits that have damaged her credibility extends well beyond today’s shocker. Just two days ago, the state’s public health director charged that Palin had forced her out because of their difference on social issues - an accusation that fits with other stories surrounding Palin’s tendency to abusively fire state employees like the Wasilla police chief or that infamous state trooper.

All of this is occurring at a time Palin is particularly vulnerable. This week, two must-read stories gained a lot of attention in the political world. The first is a nearly 10,000-word Vanity Fair portrait in which Todd Purdum revisits the 2008 campaign and reports from Alaska to portray her as “erratic,” supremely ambitious, vindictive, engaging in cronyism, willing to bend the truth and exhibiting “extravagant self-regard;” most anecdotes that have come to be known about the Governor are in the piece, as well as new light shed by Purdum.

This piece was quickly followed by a CBS News story that published email exchanges between Steve Schmidt and Palin. In an effort to get the campaign to issue a statement clarifying her husband’s membership in the Alaska Independence Party, Palin conveyed false information to her own campaign. Her attempt to “bend the facts ever so slightly to fit neatly into her version of events,” as CBS artfully characterizes, was met with quite a brutal rebuttal from Schmidt.

Given the negative coverage she has recently received, the mounting ethical inquiries and perhaps a desire to concentrate on family, is it possible that that today’s announcement is meant to signal that she’s giving up on politics (as Red State laments)? I doubt that to be the case, but it’s at least plausible - not that it would make her decision any less irresponsible. We shall soon get an answer, based on whether Palin continues to attend political events and position herself as a leader of the national Republican Party, as William Kristol, ever the fan, hopes she will.

Another possibility is that she is trying to pull a McGreevey and beat revelations about a scandal that’s about to burst; but the fact that she was accompanied by officials like Lieut. Gov. Sean Parnell suggests a level of preparation and no rush to beat a breaking scandal. Would Parnell have agreed to appear at her conference if there was more to this story?

And so we’re left with the 2012 explanation - in preparation for a run against Obama, Palin decided that resigning made more sense than simply waiting for the end of her term in January 2011 - but the rationale behind such thinking completely escapes me.

Alaska landscape getting increasingly tricky for Palin

Sarah Palin recently made it clear that she had no intention to run for Senate in 2010, but she should start thinking of an alternative to serving another term as Alaska Governor if she is serious about a future presidential run.

Like all Governors, Palin risks seeing her approval rating plunge as the economic crisis worsens, but her problems reach far deeper than those of her colleagues. She has antagonized her state legislature to such an extent that she is likely to spend much of the next two years battling local lawmakers. And if she runs for re-election in 2010, she could be embroiled in a high-profile trench warfare with her legislature all the way until 2012.

Palin’s showdown with her legislature is sure to be particularly chaotic because she is battling her own party. (The state House is controlled by the GOP, and the state Senate is in the hands of an odd coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers since 2006.)

We learned that Palin had a rocky relationship with Alaska Republicans as soon as she was tapped to be John McCain’s running-mate. Within hours came a scathing assessment from then-state Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican. ”She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” said Green. “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?” Since then, Palin antagonized most state legislators when she announced her decision to refuse a third of the stimulus money - much of it education funds.

Now comes the news that both chambers of the legislature have rejected Palin’s nominee for Attorney General - a move The Anchorage Daily News describes as “a historic vote” and “the first time in state history a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature.” Of 32 Republican legislators, 9 voted with Democrats reject Wayne Anthony Ross’s nomination:

Even Ross’ opponents in the Legislature had said just a few days ago that he had enough support to be confirmed despite widespread opposition from Alaska Native groups, his calling gays “degenerates” in the 1990s, and allegations that he made offensive comments about women. But a tipping point appeared to come this week when Ross gave what lawmakers called bad and politicized legal advice to Palin about a fight she’s having with lawmakers over a state Senate appointment.

The “fight” that paragraph refers to is indeed quite comically chaotic. Last month, state Senator Kim Elton was appointed to a post in the Obama Administration. According to state law, the Governor gets to fill the vacancy - but the pick has to be of the same party as the departing member. Predictably, Palin is doing her best to get around the requirement. She first appointed Tim Grussendorf, who had just registered as a Democrat; the Senate’s Democratic caucus voted to reject Palin’s appointment. The Governor then appointed Joe Nelson, an official at the University of Alaska Southeast; Democrats responded that Nelson was not active in party politics and rejected his appointment.

Act 3: Palin sent the state Senate a list of 3 names - Grussendorf, Nelson and Alan Wilson, who only became a Democrat on March 4th. That set up a bizarre showdown (emphasis mine):

State Senate Democrats are refusing to vote on the three names that Gov. Sarah Palin forwarded as appointees for the open Senate seat. They obtained a legal opinion this morning saying it is illegal for Palin to submit more than one name. “There is nothing for us to vote on, there is no appointment,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat. “The governor has taken an unusual course which is outside the law and leaves us no choice but to ignore what she‘s done.”

I caught up with the governor’s attorney general appointee, Wayne Anthony Ross, in the Capitol… “It seems to me the most important thing that can be done by the Senate is not argue with legal or illegal but to appoint somebody to represent Juneau,” said Ross.

I’m going to ignore the fact that Ross’s defense of Palin’s list is utterly nonsensical and point out that Alaska lawmakers are determined to make life difficult for Palin - and to turn her into a laughingstock in the process.

While this situation might help her portray herself as a “maverick” looking to shake up the state’s power interests, a prolonged battle would be sure to generate dozens of negative stories that Palin’s Republican rivals (not to mention Democrats) will gleefully file away for future use. It’s never good to have your state looking ungovernable and to have your leadership constantly questioned - and remember that Palin’s executive experience was one of her main arguments on the campaign trail last fall.

Most importantly, Palin’s Alaska-based showdown would first and foremost distract her from the national stage - preventing her from helping other Republicans in the run-up to the midterm and taking her attention away from the presidential trail in 2011. After all, it is not as easy to travel from Juneau to Des Moines as it is to jump from Massachusetts to New Hampshire!

With the entire country’s eyes scrutinizing her every move, it will be very difficult for Palin to escape criticism that she is taking gubernatorial decisions with an eye to the national landscape and her relationship with the state legislature is sure to deteriorate every time she travels to the lower 48. From The Anchorage Daily News’s article on Ross’s rejection:

Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who voted against Ross, said Palin should have stayed in town to help round up votes for her attorney general nominee. The Republican governor was in Indiana on Thursday to speak at a Right to Life event.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney - freed from his gubernatorial duties but still very much on the public eye - is attracting nothing but applause for devoting most of his time to fundraising and to courting Republican officials across the country.

Update: More evidence from Mike Hawker, the Republican co-chair of the Finance Committee: “I’ve had a lot of friction with the governor this year on her lack of connection, frankly the appearance that she’s more concerned about her national ambitions than what’s going on in the state.”

Palin will not run for Senate

Sarah Palin had denied harboring any Senate plans before, but this time we have to take her seriously: The not-so-long-ago-indispensable Anchorage Daily News reports that the Alaska Governor will host a fundraiser for Senator Lisa Murkowski. “The governor has no intention of running for the senator’s seat in 2010,” added a Palin spokeswoman. “[She] thinks the senator is doing a great job and that’s why she’s looking forward to hosting a fundraiser for her.”

Alaska’s 2010 field

To those who were hoping that the 2010 cycle would bring a climactic finale to the internal feud of the Alaska Republican Party, this development is surely disappointing. After the Palin-Frank Murkowski showdown of 2006, after the Parnell-Young and Palin-GOP legislators battles of 2008 (not to mention the Stevens saga), how fun would it have been to follow Palin and Parnell’s assault on Lisa Murkowski and Don Young? Alaska would become ground zero in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party - all of it against the backdrop of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Those who are hoping for some Alaska action should not despair, as Young suggested last week that former Senator Ted Stevens should challenge Palin in the gubernatorial primary now that he has been cleared of his felony convictions. Yet, and while Stevens has shown enough political resilience to perhaps be tempted by such a move, that remains a very far-fetched scenario - and Young admitted as much.

With Palin’s threat out of the way, Lisa Murkowski now looks like one of the safest incumbents in the country: There are no other Republicans who might challenge her, and she certainly has nothing to worry about with Ted Stevens, a political ally whom she defended over the past few months, urging President Bush to grant him a pardon. (Pardon my EFCA obsession, but she is currently the only GOP Senator to have explicitly opened the door to supporting a watered-down version of the bill; might this help her get there?)

As for the general election, If former Governor Tony Knowles failed to unseat Murkowski in 2004, if Ethan Berkowitz manged to lose to Young in 2008 and if Mark Begich only beat a convicted felon by 4,000 votes, how is a Democrat supposed to beat Murkowski in 2010? For those looking to keep an eye on possible Murkowski opponents, Berkowitz and state Senator Hollis French are mentioned as possible candidates.

Palin’s plans

That Palin had to announce a fundraiser for people to take her Senate denials seriously speaks to how much all of the Governor’s moves are interpreted through the 2012 prism. Indeed, it would have made sense for Palin to run for Senate: In the primary, she would have positioned herself as a conservative crusader; she could have endeared herself more to the Republican base and used the race as a rehearsal for the presidential primaries.

Had she won, Palin would have acquired a national platform with which to talk about federal issues and from which to take a leading role in opposing Barack Obama. This is the same exact reason Charlie Crist might be interested in leaving Florida’s Governor’s Mansion to run for Senate. Yet, Crist would be the overwhelming favorite to win the open Senate seat; Palin would need to defeat an incumbent in a primary. Her camp understandably decided that the risk was too great for Palin to lose everything; had Murkowski prevailed, how would Palin have remained a credible presidential contender?

Palin’s next decision involves the gubernatorial race: Should she run for re-election, or should she retire? If she chooses the latter option, we will know for sure that she is planning a presidential run. Mitt Romney’s transparent moves in 2005-2006 helped his opponents stock up tons of oppo research in preparation for 2007-2008, but for Palin to be transparent might not make much of a difference since she is already treated her as a presidential contender.

For Palin to leave office would allow her to spend the final months of the 2010 cycle traveling around the country helping other Republican candidates (which is what Romney is expected to do); and she would then be free to travel around Iowa and New Hampshire in 2010 and 2011. If she runs for re-election, however, things might get tricky: Alaska is quite far from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, making it difficult for the state’s Governor to do quick trips to those states and to combine campaign events with official duties.

Before she even thinks of 2010 and 2012, however, Palin better get her escalating war of words with Levi Johnston. I really could not care less what went on over the past year between the Johnstons and the Palins, but the story is getting so messy that is certainly has the power to hurt the Governor’s presidential aspirations - especially in a Republican primary. Whatever the truth, it makes no sense whatsover for Palin and her entourage to keep pushing back against Levi’s statements and risk making this into a bigger story.

Who knew Alaskan politics could be this entertaining, continued

In an unexpected move, the Department of Justice decided this week to drop the charges against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. This will effectively void Stevens’s conviction on seven charges related to lying about gifts on financial disclosure forms.

An internal review reportedly revealed that problems of prosecutorial misconduct looked to be even more wide-reaching than previously reported - and that’s saying a lot considering how much controversy the prosecutors created last fall: They repeatedly failed to provide the defense team all the evidence they were using, and they presented evidence in court that they knew was false. Now, The New York Times reports that those involved in the case could be facing ethics charges of their own.

In October, I wrote that the prosecution’s actions should make us uncomfortable with the prospect of a guilty verdict. Whatever you think of Stevens’s culpability, this is a good move by the Department of Justice. (If only they were as willing to crack down on prosecutorial misconduct in lower-profile cases.)

The DoJ’s decision does not clear Stevens of suspicion. Their move was not due to the merits of the case but to procedural issues. The charges that the Senator was facing are still as damning, and the defense he offered during his trial still has as many holes. It is thus somewhat jarring to see Republican Senators rush to embrace their former colleague.

What is understandable, however, is the GOP’s frustration at having lost a Senate seat over a conviction that would be overturned a few months later (by a Democratic Attorney General, no less). Those who followed the 2008 election will remember how closely we monitored this case, whose outcome looked likely to determine the fate of the Senate race opposing Stevens and Democrat Mark Begich. Summer polls had shown Begich with a wide lead, but the margin shrank as Election Day neared. The court’s late October decision looked like it would seal his fate, but even then the longtime Senator only lost by 4,000 votes - an extraordinary show of political muscle for a convicted felon.

“I always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed. That day has finally come,” Stevens said this week. “It is unfortunate that an election was affected by proceedings now recognized as unfair.” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a similar point. “It literally cost us a seat,” he said. And thus comes the GOP’s new cause: Putting pressure on Begich to resign and trigger a special election. Sarah Palin herself has called for Begich’s resignation.

Such an arrangement would make little sense since Begich has no responsibility whatsoever in what unfolded in that courtroom last fall. If Senators started resigning every time questions were raised about their election, we would have special elections every few months. What about the GOP’s 2002 victories? Republicans were greatly helped by Iraq’s intrusion in the national debate; should Republican Senators who won tight victories (Coleman, Sununu) have resigned once it became clear that talk of weapons of mass destruction and of ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq proved misleading? After all, Republicans were far more responsible in unfairly skewing elections in 2002 than Democrats were of messing with Alaska’s process last year.

Rather than create trouble for Democrats, Stevens’s rehabilitation will have consequences on the Alaska GOP’s internal feuds.

The most amusing scenario Republican Rep. Don Young, a Stevens ally who said that the former Senator should challenge Sarah Palin in the gubernatorial primary in 2010. What a race that would be! And what a way for the state GOP’s civil war to continue after heated episodes in 2006 and 2008!

On the other side are old-school Republicans like Stevens and Young who have build their careers on bringing back money from Washington and who employ slightly less conservative rhetoric; unfortunately for them, they have also been plagued by allegations of corruption and of ethical misconduct. Senator Lisa Murkowski belongs to this latter camp; in fact, she is moderate enough that she is now one of the few GOP Senators who could save EFCA.

Let’s recap some of the recent episodes of this battle. In 2006, Palin defeated Lisa Murkowski’s father Frank in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary. In 2008, Young and Parnell faced off in a bruising primary; Palin and the Club for Growth helped Parnell, but the incumbent narrowly survived. Last fall, some of Palin’s harshest critics were Republican lawmakers from Alaska. (”She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?” declared then-state Senate President Lyda Green. “Look at what she’s done to this state. What would she do to the nation?”) And more recently, Palin’s decision to refuse a third of the stimulus money antagonized many in the state legislature.

Next year, Palin could choose to challenge Murkowski in the senatorial primary; Parnell recently suggested that he might seek a rematch against Young; and at least one prominent state Republican is now on the record suggesting that Stevens should challenge Palin. All these races might very well fizzle, but for now Alaska remains a state to follow.

Sarah Palin rejects 31% of stimulus funds

Whatever her intentions in the upcoming cycles, Sarah Palin is doing her best to emerge as one of the de facto leaders of the conservative movement. She has granted numerous interviews to conservative journalists and even endorsed Governor Rick Perry against Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas’s gubernatorial primary - even though the relatively moderate Hutchison has yet to jump in the race!

While these early maneuvers were primarily meant to be noticed by Republican activists, Palin’s latest move is so high-profile that it will play a large role in any future national campaign: She announced today that she will reject $288 million of the $930 million that were granted to Alaska in the stimulus bill. She explained that she will accept money for construction projects, but not funds meant for government operations.

Palin made sure to justify her decision in ideological terms, explaining that she is turning down the money out of the principled stance against government expansion. “In essence we say no to operating funds for more positions in government,” Palin said.

At first, Palin mistakenly suggested that she would reject 45% of the stimulus funds, though she later acknowledged that she was “only” turning down 31%. That initial exaggeration confirms that Palin has no interest in downplaying her rejecting the funds, quite the contrary: She is trying to derive as much clout among conservatives as possible.

While she remains a popular Governor, Palin could face consequences in her own state. Alaska has always been dependent on federal funds and on its elected officials’ ability to bring back millions from Washington. This is what made Ted Stevens and Don Young nearly unbeatable. (Last fall, it took a conviction on felony charges for Alaska voters to reject Stevens, and Young survived similar allegations.) For Palin to reject a third of the federal aid is sure to cause a firestorm in the state, possibly cause a slump in her approval ratings and a rift with the state legislature. Prominent state politicians are already lining up to denounce her move, forcing Lieutenant Governor Parnell to introduce some nuances in Palin’s initial statement.

Particularly controversial will be Palin’s decision that Alaska would turn down $170 million meant for education. State superintendents of education are already livid. The Anchorage Daily News describes the “frenzy of calls” sparked by the Governor’s announcement; school officials are now turning towards the (GOP-controlled) state legislature to overturn Palin’s rejecting stimulus funds.

Needless to say, Palin’s decision fits in her attempts to position herself to the right of other prominent Republicans. In February, the stimulus bill divided GOP Governors. One the one hand, Charlie Crist rallied to Obama’s side at a crucial moment, appeared with him at a rally, called on his party to support the plan and undermined the GOP’s efforts to organize a united front of opposition. On the other, Rick Perry and Mark Sanford announced they would reject some funds - and Sanford took a particularly public stance.

With her decision, Palin joins Mark Sanford’s camp and is trying to milk her announcement for all it’s worth. An important test in the GOP’s presidential primary is sure to be whether Republicans stood up to Obama and to his attempts to reverse the past thirty year’s shrinkage of government. Sarah Palin is willing to risk whatever criticism she gets in her 2010 re-election race in order to position herself better in 2012.

On the other hand, Palin risks putting herself in a box with the general public, who has come to view her as a partisan Republican who is at the far-right of the political spectrum. While all but three congressional Republicans voted against the stimulus bill, many ended up touting what the stimulus could do for their district or their state; few went as far as Sanford and Palin. If Obama’s policies come to be massively unpopular with voters, Palin could use today’s announcement to her advantage. Otherwise, look for her decision to feed the caricature of Palin as a doctrinaire conservative and for it to be used against her in any general election in which she participates.

Also: This week, PPP released a national poll finding Sarah Palin trailing Barack Obama 55% to 35% in a hypothetical presidential match-up. Make of that what you will.

The battle for the GOP’s leadership

Only a few days have passed since John McCain’s defeat, but the GOP’s star are already positioning themselves for a 2012 run - or at the very least jostling to feel the power vacuum of the post-Bush era. If the next three years are as entertaining as this last week, we are in for quite a treat!

In many ways, what happens over the next few weeks will be as important as anything that might take place subsequently. Like any party that has suffered an electoral rout, the GOP is now in turmoil, but it will soon settle in a new routine that will be difficult to shake off. The emerging leaders, strategic and ideological course the GOP now chooses itself will have a big impact on their political identity over the next four years.

Republicans who acquired a national stature over the course of this year (Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee) must move quickly to build on their current strength. Those who have national ambitions but were largely left out of this cycle’s proceedings (Charlie Crist, Mark Sanford, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich) have to build the networks that will be useful down the line before bigger names suck all the oxygen out of the room. And younger figures like Bobby Jindal or Eric Cantor must find ways to continue looking fresh and justify why so many conservatives see them as rising stars.

That many of these politicians are currently convening in Miami for the Republican Governors Association meeting makes the GOP’s leadership fight even more of a spectacle, as Palin, Crist, Jindal, Sanford and Pawlenty will struggle for attention in the hopes of getting credit for helping the GOP out of the wilderness.

Complicating the picture, of course, is that these quarrel of persons will be complemented by an ideological one: Should the party veer to the center or should it move further to the Right? Are Bush’s unpopularity and McCain’s defeat due to their conservative apostasy or do they signal that the GOP can no longer rely on its traditional playbook? Has the GOP been excessively Southernized?

In short: Who or what should be blamed for the party’s crushing defeat? Which politicians, what policy proposals, what demographic, what ideological trait?

These questions are never easy for a party to answer, and the blame game can easily be transformed into a hysterical firing squad in which seemingly every one has a different diagnostic, a different culprit and a different prescription. The moment is particularly urgent for Sarah Palin. While she remains popular in the conservative base (70% of Republican voters thought she was qualified according to last week’s exit polls), McCain’s advisers have chosen to dump a lot of the ticket’s failure on the Alaska Governor (McCain continues to publicly state that she did no harm) and a viciously brutal battle is currently being waged over her image.

Palin has to engage her critics as soon as possible in order to remain a player in Republican politics down the line, and she is clearly aware of this imperative as she has already engaged in an intensive media blitz -even delivering surprisingly honest admissions that she is thinking about a 2012 presidential run. One strategy she could employ to capture the good graces of the party establishment is to fundraise and stump on behalf of other candidates during the midterms, getting a number of Republican congressmen indebted to her. Barack Obama successfully employed such a strategy in 2006.

Before we even get to 2012, however, the GOP’s first high-profile leadership battle will take place in the coming weeks for the position of a RNC Chairman. There are numerous contenders representing all of the party’s sensibilities, and a number of story lines will be fascinating to follow. First, what success Newt Gingrich receives will tell us a lot about whether the Republican establishment is looking for a providential savior and how much they are counting on a repeat of the 1992-1994 sequence.

Second, there will be a fight between those like Saul Anuzis who say that the GOP has become too much of a Southern party and those like Katon Dawson (the chairman of South Carolina’s Republican Party) who want to protect the South’s grip on Republican politics.

The presidential election might be over, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

The Palin factor

As we entered October, I asked a series of questions that I said would go a long way towards determining the winner of the presidential election. Now that results are in, it is worth taking a look at these questions yet again to try and determine what happened over the past month. Here is the first: Did Sarah Palin matter?

After the vice-presidential debate, Sarah Palin became much less of a factor in the race and we returned to the familiar situation in which the top of the ticket drives the conversation. But there is no question that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has had a much greater influence than that of most modern vice-presidential nominees.

On August 29th, John McCain chose to gamble - and he did so in a big way by picking Palin as his running-mate. His decision immediately revived his struggling campaign, and she energized the conservative base, something that was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a McCain victory. At the same time she failed to attract independents and suburban women to the Republican ticket. As the novelty factor wore off, Palin’s public image deteriorated and the electorate became increasingly uncomfortable with her selection.

I firmly believe that the McCain campaign was right to take a gamble of this magnitude. The campaign was stuck playing catch-up since the first days of the general election. McCain advisers had very few cards left to play. One of the only ones they could control was the vice-presidential pick. The names that were circulating in the Republican veepstakes - Romney, Portman, Pawlenty - might have been strong picks in any other year, but they were not going to provide McCain with the shake-up he needed.

But the way in which they decided what gamble they should take and how they should implement was wildly incompetent.

A gamble by definition can go either way, and it is impossible to predict whether it will radically change the game or turn to an unspeakable nightmare. Yet, this is not to say that it should just be taken lightly without careful consideration: Risks should be calculated, potential drawbacks should be considered and back-up plans should be ready. That a plan is risky is all the more reason to weight it carefully; that its outcome is unpredictable is no excuse for rushing through the decision-making process.

In other words, a gamble should never be made impulsively.

Yet, the Palin choice was nothing if not impulsive. As we long suspected and Scott Draper’s behind-the-scenes account confirmed, it was made in a hurry with inadequate vetting. And from the very first days of September, it proved to be a distracting drip of daily revelations.

First came the flood of reports about her past, her record as Mayor and Governor. Here we learned how inadequate the vetting process was, and not because of the huge amount of revelations we were getting but because of the McCain campaign’s inability to counter those revelations. When the press started reporting that Palin had supporting Pat Buchanan or that she had belonged to the Alaska Independence Party, it took the GOP a long time to find the (arguable) holes in those stories; a simple Nexis search of her name might have alerted McCain aides to those minefields beforehand, allowing them to be prepared to fire back at any misleading reports within minutes rather than days.

Second came Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric which undermined the seriousness of her candidacy for good; all the GOP had left to hope for was that she not sink the McCain campaign, and she performed well enough at the vice-presidential debate to avoid that fate. But then came P.R. disaster of her shopping spree - and The New York Times is now reporting that those were her own decisions that shocked the RNC, unlike what Palin said at first when Politico broke the story - which proceeded to damage her image as an average “hockey mom.”

What ended up truly hurting Republicans was the increasingly public civil war within the McCain campaign. Controversies surrounded Palin’s freelancing (what was up with her stunning protests about her own campaign’s decision to pull-out of Michigan), and The New York Times’s story about the relations between Palin and McCain has a wealth of stunning information (for instance Palin’s insistence at delivering a speech before McCain on Tuesday night, only to be shot down by Schmidt and Salter).

As the duo plummeted in the polls, the firing squad grew into a frenzy; McCain advisers had apparently decided to lay the blame on Palin and the governor’s allies are determined to save her national ambition. This dynamic is sure to lead to even more leaks to the press over the next few weeks, as the GOP’s internal dissensions will spill in the public arena.

It is of course debatable whether any vice-presidential nominee ever has an impact on voters. But it is hard to deny that Palin became a drag to her ticket. (Much of it is McCain’s fault for tapping her when she was so obviously not ready for the big stage, but those are questions that Republicans should settle between themselves.) At the very least, Palin cost McCain precious news cycles at a time he could not afford to waste a single day - all the way to the mid-October troopergate report that led to negative headlines across the country a mere three weeks before Election Day.

At worst, Palin so worried wavering Democrats and independent voters that it sent them to Obama’s side. In an election in which Republicans were hoping to win Clinton supporters, firing a shot in the culture war was sure to repel many of the lifelong Democrats who had been left demoralized by Hillary’s loss; and picking a nominee with little experience was bound to backfire given that one of the main reasons many independents were not sure about Obama was his own lack of preparedness. The national exit polls leave no doubt that all of Palin’s talk of mayoral experience did little to reassure voters: a full 60% of respondents said that Palin is not qualified to be president if necessary, and Obama won 82% of those voters.

McCain’s age, of course, magnified the importance of Palin’s pick, and while past vice-presidential nominees had limited impact (just look at 1988) there was tremendous public attention surrounding the Alaska Governor: Her one debate got more viewers than any of the presidential debates, and her convention speech drew almost as large an audience as Barack Obama’s address. All of this makes the latter scenario far more plausible.

Meanwhile, whether Republicans come to think that Palin was an overall boost or a hindrance, will be a crucial factor in whether she has a chance to capture the Republican nomination in 2012 or in 2016.

GOP in turmoil: McCain defends Obama, Palin hit by troopergate

McCain’s Minnesota town hall will surely be remembered as one of the campaign’s most remarkable moments - an event at which many of the subplots of this presidential race dramatically collided.

For the past week, as Obama has risen in the polls, Republican rallies have been become increasingly boisterous and the conservative faithful in attendance have been channeling their panic at the thought of losing in particularly vitriolic language. And there is nothing surprising in this for anyone who has been following this race: the underground smears propagated via viral emails have long been a part of the campaign.

What has been new this week has been that these rumors, hidden fears and xenophobic sentiments have surfaced for all to see: after all, anyone who has come to believe that Obama has a terrorist background and Muslim roots now has to envision the prospect of such a man winning the White House. No wonder that there is so much visceral anger being expressed at McCain’s rallies - “traitor,” “terrorist,” “kill him!” have all been shouted over the past few days.

At today’s town hall, McCain was confronted by these sentiments and he chose to reign them in by urging the audience not to be scared of Obama, whom he called a “decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” He also asked the audience to be respectful of his opponent, a request that immediately attracted jeers. That led to the incredible spectacle of the Republican nominee being booed over and over again by an outraged audience who has grown to despise the Illinois Senator and who was now taking its anger out on their own party’s nominee.

And while a lot of McCain’s exchanges could be viewed as an opportunistic attempt to appeal to independents (he was, after all, confronted with similarly angry feelings at other events this week and he did not respond in such a chastising way), he did at least seem genuinely taken aback when a woman told him she believed Obama was Arab. “No ma’am,” interrupted McCain. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.” TPM compiled all of these moments in a fascinating video that is worth a look:


McCain has been walking on a tight rope for weeks now, and even more so over the past few days. He has (remarkably) kept his word that he would not bring up Reverend Wright, to the dismay of many Republican operatives. Yet, his campaign slogan has become “Who is Barack Obama?” - a question that is meant to play on voters’ fears about Obama’s character and identity; for months now, McCain’s ads have been accusing Obama of disrespecting the troops, looking to put them in danger and refusing to meet them; as I said yesterday, Frank Keating’s description of Obama as a “guy of the street” are among the ugliest remarks uttered by a politician this year; McCain has been invoking Ayers with increasing frequency; and the former Weatherman has also been the topic of an RNC spot, a McCain web ad and a McCain TV ad.

Those ads go beyond pointing out that Obama has been associated with a former domestic terrorist; they claim that Obama has collaborated with a terrorist - a phrasing that implies that the subject of their collaboration was some type of terrorist project rather than an education board in Chicago. In other words, these ads do more than implicate Obama’s judgment, and they do more than imply he is at ease with political radicals; they suggest that there is something about Obama that in some sense justifies wondering whether he is a terrorist.

So while it would be unfair to say that McCain instigated all these hateful feelings or launched these smears since the viral e-mails were circulating months before McCain even became a serious contender for the Republican nomination, his general election campaign has not hesitated to channel those feelings and play on these fears - fears that have gotten so out of control that they are threatening to provoke a backlash and undermine the credibility of all the Republican attacks.

Now, McCain is urging his supporters to respect Obama, focus on issues differences and acknowledge that he is a “decent man” while at the same attacking Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and his disregard for the troops. Both efforts are highly publicized, so it is not like McCain is taking the high road publicly while smearing Obama under the radar. Can McCain benefit from the situation if independents see him taking on angry members of his own audience and thus don’t hold his Ayers ads against him? Or will this be the worse of both words - McCain looking incoherent, insincere and contradicting the substance of his own attacks?

But if the top of the ticket had a rough day today, it was nothing compared to that of Sarah Palin. The much awaited “trooperagate” report was finally released late this evening, and while a Palin spokesperson responded that the Governor felt “vindicated,” it is quite a stretch to think that the report constitutes good news for the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee. The report concludes that Palin was within her right to fire Public Safety Commissioner Monegan but it also finds that Palin abused her power, violated the law and breached the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act by urging subordinates to get her ex-brother in law fired and not prevent her husband from repeatedly contacting Monegan. (More detail about the report here and here. Download the pdf version here.)

The McCain campaign is already on the war path, seeking to discredit the investigative commission, but this will not be an easy task. This was a bipartisan committee with a number of Republicans, and the legislative council voted unanimously to make the report public. Furthermore, the report’s central findings don’t leave much room for interpretation and nuance, as abuse of power is never a label that sounds very good on a politician’s record. Finally, the McCain campaign cannot even curse the report’s timing or the unlucky fate that leads to all bad news coming at once: troopergate has been an issue for months, and the investigative report was already scheduled to be released in October before McCain tapped her. The McCain campaign must have known about this when they chose her and they apparently knowingly took the risk.

This will surely be damaging for Palin and could further deterioate an already shaky image; this will also be one more distraction for the McCain campaign to deal with. News that Palin violated the law is likely to be on the front page of countless newspapers today, costing the Republican ticket one of the campaign’s last news cycles at a time McCain can afford no distraction. If the GOP is trying to raise doubts about Obama and his past associations, it doesn’t help that there is a fresher, newer scandal involving the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

That said, the report should not be taken as an unmitigated calamity for the McCain campaign. I wrote after the vice-presidential debate that Palin and Biden no longer really mattered, and that remains the case tonight. Troopergete will be damaging to the extent that it throws the McCain campaign off its game, but it will know by itself change the minds of many voters. VP candidates are not a dominant preoccupation in mid-October, especially not when the economy is in turmoil.

Here we go: RNC attacks Obama on Ayers, troopergate report comes out tomorrow

We had been waiting for this ad for days now, and we had gotten to wondering whether it would come at all as the GOP appeared to have scaled back its commitment to attacking Obama directly on the Ayers connection and instead was pushing the press to take up the matter. No longer: McCain used very tough language today, declaring on Charlie Gibson that Americans “will care” about Ayers. “I have every right to insist that he be candid and truthful with the American people,” he said. “And he needs to be asked about it, and he needs to be forthcoming.”

And tonight, the RNC’s independent expenditure arm is out with the first ad released by an outside group to hit Obama on Ayers. The RNC had already aired an ad hitting Obama for his ties to Rezko - but Ayers had not been mentioned. This spot hits Obama for doing things the “Chicago way,” by which is meant corruption and radical politics:

And there goes the dynamite! Ayers is one of the GOP’s main silver bullets - or so they hope - and they have connected him with other figures of Obama’s past to connect Ayers to other talking points and attempt to paint an overarching portrait of Obama as a risky choice that Americans do not know enough about. Enough voters harbor doubts about Obama (as was evidenced by his weakness in general election polling among registered Democrats for much of the spring and summer) that this wave of attacks could work by feeding preexisting perceptions.

And this effort will certainly not be nuanced: McCain surrogate and former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating brought up Obama’s past drug use and  called him a former “guy of the street.” (How can that not be described as a racial reference? when was Obama a guy of the street? when he was in Hawaii, when he went to Columbia and Harvard, or when he was an Ivy League graduate in the South Side?) a stark reminder of how tame the primary season was. The one Clinton official to bring up Obama’s drug use, Bill Shaheen, had to resign from the campaign).

A few issues the McCain camp should worry about, however:

  1. Was the McCain campaign ready for this, and did they know it was coming? The spot comes from the RNC’s independent expenditure division, which is not allowed to coordinate efforts with the McCain campaign, so does it correspond to the McCain campaign’s wishes? (This is precisely the reason that I have long said that Obama’s money is worth more than the combined sum of RNC and McCain’s dollars, since there isn’t one Republican group that can control the message.) On the other hand, this could allow McCain to not have to defend the ad as his own (though RNC expenditures are certainly closer to home than 501s or 527s).
  2. The RNC’s ads will only air in a few states; it has been confirmed that it will go up in IN and WI (and previous RNC independent buys never aired in more than 6 states, one of which was Michigan). So is this a real and full buy or is it one that is only designed to get the media talking? Furthermore, will the McCain campaign release a similar ad targeted at other competitive states?
  3. The circumstances of the ad’s release highlight once again the difficult position the GOP is in right now. They were surely hoping the ad would create some splash and put Ayers on the front page - but the Dow plunged more than 600 points today, meaning that the stock market has crashed about 1700 points since the beginning of the week. The constant drip of dismal economic news guarantees that the economy remains the top story - and obscures anything else.

Meanwhile, Democrats might get an opportunity to put the McCain campaign on the defensive tomorrow, as the troopergate report will be released. The Alaska Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case of Republicans who were arguing that the case had now become politicized and the investigative committee should not be allowed to go public with its findings, but the court just rejected the GOP’s plea, paving the way for the Legislative Council’s investigator to release the Troopergate report tomorrow.

Today, reports emerged of a sworn statement Todd Palin gave to the investigative team in which he awknowledged having talked to a dozen of state officials in an effort to get Mike Wooten fired. That said, it is of course impossible to know what the report will conclude, but it could prove embarassing for the McCain campaign at a time it was finally looking to move past the Palin distractions. At this point, the two vice-presidential nominees are secondary characters, and they will only have an impact if they make a gaffe or are implicated in a large controversy, and we have known from the very first minute Palin was selected that troopergate had the potential to be the latter. It is a risk the McCain campaign took (though questions remain about how much they vetting they had done) and they will know tomorrow whether it backfires even more than it already has.

With the race in flux, presidential campaign gets nasty

A few weeks ago, Rick Davis said that the election would not be decided on issues but on character, and the McCain campaign is staying true to its word. Within hours of Obama’s ad attacking McCain’s position on education issues, the GOP was out with an ad accusing the Illinois Senator of wanting children to “[learn] about sex before learning to read.”

So McCain’s latest ad blasts Obama for wanting to teach children about sex in Kindergarten. The Obama campaign has called McCain’s “perverse” and questioned McCain’s honor; “last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn’t define what honor was. Now we know why,” said the campaign. And for the past few hours, Drudge has been headlining Obama’s “you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig” and accompanying that quote with a picture of Sarah Palin.

It does feel like the campaign took a turn over the past 12 hours and descended into the gutter. But it’s still September 10th, and the race has plenty of time to sink further.

Before going any further, a minimal amount of fact checking seems necessary. First of all, let’s look at Obama’s lipstick comment, which led McCain campaign’s to accuse him of sexism. Former Gov. Swift said, ” “Calling a very prominent female governor a pig is not what we want.” Hoping to make this go viral, the McCain campaign has produced a web ad that prefaces Obama’s quote with “Obama on Palin.” But it is entirely disingenuous to put a picture of Palin next to Obama’s comments, as if Obama was calling the Alaska Governor a pig. Whatever one says about Obama’s insensitivity, he was not talking about Palin but about McCain. The expression was meant to refer to McCain’s argument that he is no Bush Republican. Said Obama:

John McCain says he is change to… That’s not change, that’s just calling something the same thing something different. You can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink.

Could Obama have chosen his words better? Sure. Palin did appropriate the “pitbull with lipstick” expression in her acceptance speech, and Obama’s comments echo back to that. [Update, since a commenter takes this sentence as my contradicting myself: All I mean by echo is that Obama's words remind us of what Palin said and that Obama should have foreseen that Drudge would run with it if he did not strike an expression he is known to use from his vocabulary. The word "echo" in no way implies that Obama was referring to Palin. If this isn't clear, we might as well say that Palin was copying Obama by using the word lipstick in her speech months he did.]

But for Drudge, Swift and McCain to say that Obama referred to Palin as a “pig” is a fabrication. It makes no sense given the context, little sense considering the fact that Obama has used that expression before, and risky sense considering McCain used the same exact expression to describe Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal (”I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”) and on at least two other occasions. The Obama campaign was quick to point out this hypocrisy: “This phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism and lays bare the increasingly dishonorable campaign John McCain has chosen to run.”

Similarly, McCain’s ad on Kindergarten sex-ed is a series of stunningly transparent distortions. Obama’s one accomplishment was “legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners,” says the ad. (1) It is ridiculous to claim that this was one of Obama’s “accomplishments” when the bill did not pass and Obama wasn’t even one of the sponsors. (2) the bill in question was only meant to be applied to existing sex-ed programs, did not add any new program and certainly did not mandate any kindergarten class from offering any kind of sex-ed. (3) The ad makes Kindergarten sex-ed seem like an insane concept bordering on pedophilia when it can consist of simple things like telling children to not trust strangers.

We still have to see whether the McCain campaign goes ahead and airs the ad (Update: They will, in 7 Midwestern states!), but this is the type of provocative attack that is sure to generate attention and put an opponent on the defensive, drowning whatever policy message they had for the day. And how can one respond to ads like this one? How can one issue a response when the topic at hand is children and sex?

The more Obama spends time defending himself, the less time he has attacking McCain’s ties with Bush and the more the election becomes a referendum on his alleged radicalism, leftism and now apparently loose morals. The more Obama defends himself, the more he fulfills Davis’s prophecy that this election will be decided by questions of character.

Furthermore, how do you respond to an ad when its main charge is so obviously not supported by facts? This goes back to the Bridge to Nowhere discussion. When even the AP and the Wall Street Journal have issued articles denouncing McCain and Palin’s statements on the topic as false and when McCain and Palin seem to not care at all and keep repeating the same assertions, what is the next step? An incredulous Post article describes this strategy of “staying on message even when that message has been publicly discredited” and points out that this commitment to transparent distortions is proving very effective in at least one area - taxes. The press can remind readers that claims are lies, the Obama campaign can continue to blast the GOP ticket, but will it matter? At would point would voters notice?

This sequence is also a reminder that the election ultimately remains about Barack Obama and John McCain. However much the conversation over the past two weeks has shifted to Palin and however much the GOP is banking its change strategy on the Alaska Governor, there is only so much attention Palin will be able to occupy in the next two months. Obama and McCain are mainly attacking each other, and ads like this will contribute to re-focusing the debate on the presidential nominees. And there are three presidential debates that will be watched by tens of millions of viewers - two of which will take place long after Biden and Palin are done with their sole encounter.

Palin has already changed some of the election’s fundamentals. She has lifted the spirits of Republican activists, she has given new life to the McCain campaign and she is drawing huge crowds the McCain campaign is not used to. She could very well prove to be a more consequential pick than we are used to, and accusations of sexism could still fuel a female backlash against Obama. But as the general election’s rhetoric amplifies, it is important to remember that those who are still undecided are more likely to be moved by the names at the top of the ticket.

Update: Obama offers an unapologetic response, attacks the media and McCain for being unwilling to discuss serious issues.

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