What Sarah Palin Saw Clearly

Oct 10, 2018, 02:08 PM

The Atlantic

Ten years ago, we first met Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, for a series of TV interviews. At the time, Palin might not have been able to name a single newspaper or magazine—but she did read where the electorate, at least a significant part of it, was moving. Her candidacy revealed that long-standing political norms were being pushed aside by a new style of divisive, personality-driven populism. A decade later, it’s clear that Palin was more than a historical footnote; she was the harbinger of things to come.

In 2008, John McCain wanted to change politics with his selection of a running mate; his idea was to pick Joe Lieberman, an independent senator who caucused with the Democrats. According to aides, McCain wanted to confront extreme partisanship and forge a kind of national-unity government built on comity and compromise, pledging to serve a single term. But after Senator Lindsey Graham floated the idea, the hard-core party faithful rejected the notion out of hand. Faced with the choice of picking a fight with the most loyal (and ideological) Republican voters, or picking a more doctrinaire candidate, McCain decided to appease the base.

Historically, vice-presidential nominees have been selected for a variety of reasons, a combination of campaign politics and compatible skill sets. Despite the slogan “Country first,” the McCain team focused exclusively on politics—desperate for an edge that would help the GOP win a rare third term, even in a weak economy. (A month later, the economy would go from problematic to cataclysmic.)

We recently spoke with top McCain and Obama aides for our podcast marking 10 years since the Palin interviews. According to Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, Palin’s vetting did not include asking any questions like “Do you understand the U.S. tax system?” or “Do you know where Iraq is?” Schmidt said they simply assumed that a governor would be knowledgeable about public policy.

Fundamentally, it was the priority the campaign placed on optics—Palin’s outsider image and undeniable charisma—that led to the selection of a politician who believed that Saddam Hussein attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and that the British government was run by Queen Elizabeth.

Ten years ago, it was also assumed—not just by journalists but by the people running presidential campaigns—that a candidate for national office would be tested by tough interviews with serious journalists. And so, in addition to a session with Sean Hannity at Fox News, the Palin team arranged interviews with ABC and CBS. In putting together the questions, our goals were simple: be fair, follow up, and get Palin to explain her positions and philosophy to the American people.

After the governor stumbled, with widely mocked answers about Russia and the economy, it did not occur to the McCain team to cancel the second scheduled interview. They also chose not to shoot the messenger by going after the “liberal media.” Nicolle Wallace, another senior adviser, told us the campaign believed that “there was nothing Katie did that could fairly be attacked.” Sitting next to Palin, McCain himself told us he thought it was a good interview. All of that feels quaint today, when nearly one in three Americans believes the press is the “enemy of the people,” when the definition of “fake news” is news the president doesn’t like, and when many partisans restrict themselves to watching, or appearing on, shows that provide affirmation and not information.

As the campaign went on, Palin bridled at the tone McCain set. When a McCain supporter said “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No ma’am, no ma’am … He's [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” When one man said he was scared of Obama, McCain replied that “[Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” The crowd booed. McCain also said, ...