Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin and the Tire Gauge

At a townhall, a voter asked Obama what the average American can do personally to conserve energy. In response, Obama suggested that inflating your tires as a way improving gas efficiency. Seizing on this advice, the McCain campaign decided to create and pass out "Obama tire gauge" to reporters. Get it? Me neither. But you can just envision these Maxim-reading little cretins sitting in McCain headquarters giving each high fives as they come up with the latest taunt. This tire gauge prank is emblematic of a myopic campaign that is defined by its insistence on winning hourly news cycles by any means necessary. Many of these efforts, like this one or the mockery of yesterday's DNC backdrop, involve idiotic frat boy antics that elicit giggles from right-wing mouthbreathers but end up only as fodder for the Colbert Report. Others, like those Hillary Clinton attacking Barack ads, are tactically savvy for a day or two, but serve little more than to fill up cable news dead time.

This sort of Animal House as political campaign is probably the only aspect of McCain's operation that's close in spirit to McCain's appealing 2000 run (there's a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster that captures the freewheeling, insurgent vibe of the Straight Talk Express; read it and weep at what's become of Mr. Maverick). And this impulsiveness speaks to McCain himself, a man of many virtues but whose disqualifying personal flaw is that he makes decisions on the fly, often as a gut reaction to a provocation.

The choice of Sarah Palin, it seems, is another product of McCain's impulsive, reactive decision-making and the thinking of a campaign that's effective in staying afloat primarily by being good at feeding the news media. McCain surely punk'd Obama for a news cycle or two, and he'll succeed in generating some excitement leading up to next week. But for what?

Thinking about it some more, this pick will almost certainly be a bad one. On August 25, 2008, when Wolf Blitzer went PUMA-hunting and the Democrats took turns mocking McCain's seven houses, this pick would win you a few newscycles. You can see McCain gather up his little advisors that day, wondering how he can poach the Hillaristas and get him some regular guy cred. Hey, how about that Palin? Regular gal. And the wingers like her. How about it?

But have they given thought to this? What's Palin's attack line on the campaign trail? What's McCain gonna say about Obama's readiness, when he can now respond, "you picked a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency, who's never visited Iraq, whose web page on foreign policy was blank space." It gives Obama an easy defense while highlighting Obama's seriousness of purpose in tapping Biden. Then there's the problem of making McCain's age fair game: "On his 72nd birthday, McCain decided that someone two years removed from being a small town mayor will be a heartbeat away from the presidency." What's more, don't they see the huge risk in trotting this neophyte out on the campaign trail in perhaps the most intensely watched and scrutinized campaign ever? And the whole thing looks desperate, especially to Hillaristas fixated on "qualifications." I've seen Hillary dead-enders, and ovaries aside, I just don't see them getting psyched about a beauty pageant winner.

There are the long-term benefits of grooming a GOP future star as McCain's not likely to win. But I'm not sure that's what McCain's really thinking about.