(NPF cancelled, obviously)
After a record number of viewers watched Thursday evening's spectacle, any delusions of Palin being an asset – or at least not a liability – to the McCain campaign have been taken behind the chemical sheds and shot. Rather than over-analyzing the performance I think it's more relevant to talk about where the campaign goes from here. McCain, in the timeless words of St. Augustine of Hippo, is looking way fucked.
That's an overstatement. He could still win; that is to say it is not impossible. It certainly looks likely that his "maverick" gamble with Palin will be self-inflicted, possibly fatal, wound. The are rapidly losing steam and they know it. They badly want to reverse the trend but there is no obvious solution. We can expect, in short, that McCain will shortly begin Phase III: Desperation.
We haven't seen this in a while. Al Gore acted like the front-runner throughout the 2000 race, and John Kerry felt like he was neck-and-neck with Bush even if trailing. Bob Dole's campaign never diverted from his patrician, boring tone in 1996 even though Clinton offered so much scandal material to work with. George H. Bush got a little frantic in 1992, but the most outrageous results were a plaintive effort to get Ross Perot to drop out and an ill-advised ten-day campaigning marathon which nearly killed the septugenarian President. Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale rode the high road to a fault. Ford, Carter, and even McGovern were able to lose without resorting to insanity.
But the 2006 election offered just a brief glimpse of how Rove & Co. react to the new experience of losing, and let's just say it will not be graceful. The next five weeks are going to be Hail Mary time for the McCain camp. Not all of it is going to be what we could call dignified. We can quasi-agree that he has lost his post-convention, post-Palin momentum and can safely be described as "trailing" at the moment. Obama is picking up steam and Palin is killing McCain with non-Republicans. McCain realizes that he is on the razor's edge between losing and getting blown out. What could they try?
1. Having Palin "decide" to spend more time with her family and respectfully withdraw. This is a no-win situation for McCain. Either he keeps a crappy running mate or admit that he blew it by picking a crappy running mate. Good judgment, John! I struggle to think of a replacement who would actually make things better. Anyone?
2. Buying into the whacko arguments about Obama and pushing them hard – the secret Muslim stuff, the "meetings with terrorists", the anti-christ angle, all of it. Abandon any claims to the high road. See what sticks and hope that it undermines Obama.
3. Promising to serve only one term. Dole floated this when he realized his odds – the theory being that an old candidate offers himself as a short-term solution who can quickly be replaced. This happened in the 19th Century (Hayes, for example) but seems woefully defeatist today.
4. Start making shit up. Promise voters anything and everything, hope it gets you in the door, and then deal with breaking your word later. Promise ridiculous things that no elected official could possibly deliver and hope someone buys it.
5. Go nuts with the martyr complex. Refuse to debate, fabricate horrible things Obama and the DNC have tried to do ("We uncovered a plot to sabotage one of our rallies!"), and aim for sympathy/outrage in general. They're already doing this to some extent.
This is really a tough situation for McCain's strategists. What would you do to turn things around? What could you do? The message isn't believable, the candidates are inarticulate, and the electoral landscape is unfavorable. Doing more of the same clearly isn't going to turn things around, but what is a reasonable alternative? Failing that, is there even a good unreasonable alternative? We'll be learning the answer through painful experience soon.