There are vast institutional and professional reasons why the total farce of the Palin vice-presidential candidacy has not yet been exposed in all its horrifying details. But "Game Change" and Steve Schmidt's Sixty Minutes interview begin to explain the inside details of what was, to those of us on the outside, the most surreal and dangerous period in domestic politics in memory.
Schmidt was integral to picking Palin. And he did so without knowing the first thing about her. There was no serious vetting, however many lies they told at the time to cover up their recklessness. Schmidt had no idea that Palin had a pregnant teenage daughter, for example, until after the nominee had been announced. Which means Palin didn't tell Schmidt, or someone else in the campaign (but who?) withheld that information from Schmidt. We're talking Keystone Cops levels of competence.
For some reason, McCain's determination to have another bitter old failure, Joe Lieberman, be his bipartisan running mate was never subjected to the cold rational analysis that the current GOP simply wouldn't go for it. In today's Party of God, a man with Lieberman's social views - on abortion, women, gays, healthcare - was simply out of the question. A serious campaign (and McCain's was a deeply unserious one, held afloat on the mythological vapors of Mark Salter and McCain's previous image as a feisty moderate) would have had a few deeply researched and hashed out backups for Lieberman. But McCain had none.
And so when Lieberman was nixed at the last minute by state party chairmen and their allies, we had the specter of Rick Davis actually scrambling through Google to find a woman - any woman - who could complement McCain. The sexism was due to Davis' and Schmidt's and McCain's bizarre notion that alienated Clinton primary voters would flock to a cranky old pro-lifer as long as someone with estrogen was his Number Two. The sheer distance from reality this implies and the identity politics it represents found its natural apotheosis in Palin: also detached from reality, and also an identity politics candidate - but not for women, as it turned out, but for the white Christianist far-right. And so McCain triggered a rebirth of the old GOP more akin to the party before Buckley - with racists, extremists and religious nuts defining the party's base, as they still do.
This was a farce; a joke; a disaster. Palin had no notion of basic high school history. She barely understood what the Cold War was.
She didn't know what the Federal Reserve did. She believed that her First Amendment rights meant she was protected from press inquiries. She couldn't tell you why there's a North and a South Korea. And she had an inability to distinguish between her own view of the world - which always rationalized everything that Sarah Palin did - and reality. This discovery then led to the elaborate and panicked strategy of shielding Palin from any direct press scrutiny - she held zero open press conferences in the campaign - and the desperate attempts to cram as much into her brain before the one-on-one media interviews and the veep debate. She also, as Schmidt details, had a capacity for saying things that were demonstrably untrue, even repeating them forcefully after the world had moved on. The Dish chronicled this bizarre record as it unfolded, but the more we found out about her, the loopier she seemed.
Inside, we now know, it became clear to many McCain aides that it was simply irresponsible to allow her to assume the office of vice-presidency. Their patriotism eventually came to the fore, as they contemplated the horror of this total novice and ignoramus - however sexy and eager to learn - actually running the United States. The responsible thing to have done, of course, would have been to have taken her off the ticket early on. But that, of course, would have destroyed what was left of McCain's chances. For a presidential candidate to concede that his first significant presidential decision had been a total fiasco would be to concede that he shouldn't be president. And indeed, McCain shouldn't have been president. In fact, he should in my view resign from the Senate because his conduct of the last campaign revealed that he put narrow partisan interests ahead of core patriotic ones. He was prepared to allow someone to replace him as president who, his own staff believed, could be "mentally unstable."
Think about that for a minute. A campaign for president had as its vice-presidential nominee someone many of the campaign strategists believed was "mentally unstable." The idea that in office they could have relegated Palin to a vice-president as beauty queen was also revealed to be surreal given Palin's propensity for going rogue and the fact that she wielded much more clout within the GOP than McCain did. Not only was she vastly unqualified to be president, as vice-president she would have rendered McCain the Potemkin president.
This was indeed surreal. It should never have happened. That such a figure came near the presidency of the United States is so alarming an insight into the self-serving cynicism of the political elite that one understands where the rabid populism now comes from.