One of the great things about using politics as a hobby is that it is structurally identical to being a fan of comic books, Star Trek, football, KISS, Harry Potter, or anything else. Something happens and then fans endlessly debate questions that cannot be answered except subjectively – whether Team A would have won if it had started the other quarterback, which Star Trek series is the best, whether the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was sufficiently faithful to the book, and so on. This is a roundabout way of inciting a debate about inherently unanswerable questions. We know it's pointless; we do it because we enjoy it.
Here's the setup: Sarah Palin was in fact the most logical and best choice as John McCain's running mate. This has become obvious to me now that strategic decisions can be analyzed with the benefit of hindsight.
The key to this conclusion is the assumption that McCain knew he was going to lose before most of us on the left accepted or admitted it. This is a solid assumption based on post-election tell-alls from McCain campaign insiders (see, for instance, Newsweek's Special Election Project issue). Overpowering pessimism might not have reigned, but the campaign was certainly well-aware that it was not the favorite.
McCain believed he was behind – possibly by a lot – and he needed to choose someone who could potentially put him on top. That is no easy feat. It's really difficult for a VP nominee to rescue a failing presidential campaign. If there was some magical person who obviously and definitely could have closed a 10-point poll gap, McCain would have picked him or her. Duh. But real life doesn't work that way. Getting the big payoff requires accepting a lot of risk. Think about it like an investment.
Let's say John Doe is 60, nearing retirement, and in excellent financial health. He knows he has plenty saved for retirement as long as he doesn't screw anything up. How will he invest his money? Low risk, low return – bonds, savings accounts, and so on. Fred Doe is 60 and nearly penniless. His math is much different. He knows that the only way he'll have enough to retire at 65 is a miracle short-term investment with a huge return. So he takes his $10,000 life's savings and invests in penny stocks or takes it to Caesar's Palace. We'd call that kind of risk-taking foolish from John, but Fred can justify it on account of his dire straits.
McCain's choices fell into two categories: safe ones who wouldn't help and huge risks who could help but probably wouldn't. He could have made a "common sense" pick like Romney, Pawlenty, Huckabee, or Lieberman. We all know that his preferred choice was Holy Joe. But do you honestly believe that McCain/Lieberman would have won? I sure as hell don't. The election might have been closer – McCain may have won Florida, perhaps North Carolina or Virginia too. So what? He lost by 100 Electoral Votes. Does anyone sincerely believe that Joe Lieberman would have been worth 100 EV? Romney? Huckabee? Pawlenty? Doubtful.
Best case scenario: McCain limits Obama to about 290 EV by choosing Lieberman, and that's being very generous. It would have accomplished nothing, in short, except making the "final score" closer.
Palin and Jindal are examples from the second category. With them on board McCain was either going to win by a hair or get blown the hell out. He chose Palin not because he finds her brilliant but because there was no other choice. He was backed into a corner and had to choose the only nominee who might, under some remotely plausible scenario, put him on top. It was a 100% chance of defeat with Lieberman and a 95% chance of defeat with Palin. Which would you choose?
Palin was the only option who could fulfill the 5% victory scenario the campaign constructed. They needed someone new, young, exciting, likeable, and to the right of Falwell on social issues. Palin likely got the nod over Jindal based on her gender and the (unlikely) chance that it could attract some old, bitter Hillary die-hards. The odds are that someone – some insider, some consultant – told McCain that Palin was a complete idiot before he chose her. He knew it. But he had no choice, so he picked her and clung to the hope that she could be polished, trained, protected, and stage managed just long enough to get him past November 4. He knew we'd find out how stupid she is, but he hoped to delay that revelation for eight weeks.
It didn't work, of course, but what would have? Palin was a monumental "blunder" like betting it all on one number in roulette is a blunder – everyone criticizes it, but if you win, who cares? The odds of winning are tiny. There comes a time in a campaign, though, when one realizes that any chance of winning is better than zero. Palin was probably the reason McCain lost so badly but the margin of defeat is irrelevant. He could lose by 30-40 with Lieberman or, with Palin, he could squeak out a win or lose by 100.
Tell me where I'm wrong. Was there anyone McCain could have chosen who would have altered the outcome? Did anyone offer better odds of success – not winning odds, mind you, just better ones – than Palin? My answer is negative on both counts.