Palin and “The Logic of the Situation”

There are a lot of Democrats who have responded to the Palin VP-pick as if it were manna from heaven. She’s unqualified! Her family is weird! McCain proved (again) that he doesn’t have the temperament for office! This sucks out all the oxygen the Republicans should be using to unload on Obama! Fantastic!

I don’t buy it. This is a year when all the fundamentals point in the direction of a solid Democratic win (and truth be told, if you look at Congressional races, there’s simply no question that Democrats will build on their current majority, very solidly). If this turns into a straight-up fight about whether the American people want to continue our current foreign policy and want to reverse the last decade of economic policy, the Republicans lose.

There are only two ways to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the policies of the two parties. The first strategy is to rough up Obama. That has been going on for the last six months, at least (and yes, I include Hillary in this, since she basically followed the Republicans’ talking points). That got the Republicans some traction, but Obama is still up, on average, about six points. In other words, they’ve squeezed attacking Obama for about as much as its worth.

Given that the limits of attacking Obama are now becoming clear, the Republicans’ only viable strategy was to somehow shuffle the deck again, by making the election about something—anything—other than party preference. What McCain was trying to do with this pick was to somehow recover the McCain reputation of 2000. “If you’re a Democrat or Independent pissed off about the direction of the country, I get it. I’ll ‘shake up’ the system,” where “shake up” means something fairly Mugwumpy and non-partisan. Picking Palin was intended to get the religious right to turn out their vote (the quieter message), but more important was to personalize the election, making it about the man at the top of the ticket and not the party he represents.

There was only one other viable strategy, and this was psychologically unavailable to McCain. He could have picked a safe candidate, like Pawlenty. Choosing someone safe would have been a decision to, in essence, take the outcome of the election out of McCain’s hands, and put in the hands of Obama and whatever scandals are yet to be discovered. Do no harm, and hope the other guy finds a way to shoot himself in the foot.

I say that this option was “psychologically unavailable” because, whatever attributes McCain may have, passivity is not one of them. He is not someone capable of playing it safe and putting his fortune in the hands of chance. All that we know about McCain shows that he has a deep need to be an “agent” of history—he can face losing in a battle of his choosing, but not on terrain chosen by others. I could speculate that this came from 5 ½ years of, basically, being under the control of others. But who knows?

As it now turns out, McCain has, in fact, changed the terrain of battle, but not really in the way he anticipated. I think there’s still some hope in the McCain camp that they can get the reform theme front and center, but at least at this moment, the entire debate is about Palin, and all the various and sundry issues that have been raised by her place on the ticket. The McCain people seem to have chosen to go with this, and are going all in with the further personalization of this race, except that now the “person” is Palin and her opponent are the old Nixonian standby, the “liberal media.”

One way of seeing this is that this is one last effort at reinvigorating the old anti-Orthogonian strategy that Rick Perlstein describes so well in Nixonland. If this gets legs, it could dominate the next two months, making it harder for the Democrats to make the election about what’s really at stake: will there be a dramatic shift in the incidence of taxation?; will we make considerable strides toward universal health care?; will substantial measures be taken to counter global warming? If it is about those things, the Democrats win.

That is why I think that Democrats salivating over a Palin meltdown are on the wrong track. Spending too much time going after McCain’s judgment may be a serious mistake. McCain’s only strategy for success is to make the election about himself and Obama as individuals—if he’s being attacked on that level, he’s at least moved the debate to the terrain it must be on for him to win.

I honestly believe that the Palin pick, as irresponsible as it is in governing terms, was the only plausible move that McCain could have made where politics is concerned. I have just read a great essay by Richard Bensel on the 1896 Democratic convention, which quotes William Jennings Bryan stating before the convention that he would be the nominee because “I represent the logic of the situation.” I am afraid that Palin was not a mistake—she was the logic of the situation. McCain took a gamble, but if he was not willing to play it safe and hope for an Obama meltdown, this was the only move he could make.

The only plausible Democratic counter-response is not to take the bait. Don’t waste any advertising space attacking either Palin or McCain on their person (not even on McCain’s temperament). Spend the next eight weeks saying, “All personalities aside, if you elect Obama, you will get the following three things. If you elect McCain and Palin, you won’t.” If this is election is on party policies, the Democrats win. If it’s not, anything could happen.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.