Suicide By Palin

On November 5, when the votes are in and Obama has won, pundits will look back and see what all the bizarreness and hysteria are occluding now: John McCain lost the election when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate.

McCain’s strategists hoped choosing Palin would accomplish two objectives:  bring in more women, and fire up the theocrat base. The first objective will fail. The second will succeed, but only in a “the operation was a success but the patient died” sense.

Objective 1: bring in more women. The number of women who would vote for someone with Palin’s views on reproductive rights (let alone her scant experience) — that is, who, as The Daily Show put it, who would put gynecology over ideology — is small. To suggest otherwise, as the McCain campaign implicitly has in making its pick, presupposes that there are significant numbers of women who are even more gullible than men. There aren’t.

Also, the few women who might vote for McCain only because his running mate is female have to be balanced against the voters McCain will have lost by his choice. Among the lost will be voters (many of them women) appalled by the cynicism of the move, by Palin’s obvious lack of readiness for the job, and by the recklessness McCain has demonstrated in his failure to vet his pick.

Objective 2: fire up the Christianist base. From what I’ve read in the news and judging from some of the mail I’ve been receiving, I think this objective will probably be achieved. But again, you have to balance the gains you make in firing up the base against the potential voters you drive to Obama by adopting this strategy. The rally-the-base strategy worked in the last two elections. After eight years of disastrous Republican incompetence, the base won’t be enough. You need the independents, too — that is, the very voters who are thoughtful enough to correctly evaluate a choice like this for what it really is.

If this is all so obvious, you might ask, why did McCain’s team adopt a strategy that’s sure to fail?

Two reasons, I would say: inertia, and the fear of looking stupid.

When I was competing in wrestling and judo, I learned that you have to be careful about relying too much on a particular money move (there are exceptions, like Japanese Olympic judo heavyweight Gold Medalist Yasuhiro Yamashita, but even there Yamashita had three money moves, each of which complemented the other two, and countering one would by design set you up for one of the others. Plus,Yamashita was abnormally talented. But I digress). If you get known for a signature move, your opponents will work hard to figure out a way to counter it. Then, when you go up against such an opponent and your money move doesn’t work, it takes a while for your brain to accept that the surefire thing isn’t working anymore and you have to do something else. Eventually, you’ll catch on, but there’s resistance, and in the meantime you’ll probably lose the match.

Now, multiply that resistance across an entire entrenched bureaucracy, and you start to get an idea of how hard it is for an organization to abandon techniques that have worked in the past, even when all the signs indicate that the current contest is different.

Compounding the inertia factor is the fear of looking stupid. I think fear of looking stupid is one of the most powerful motivators in human behavior. It explains why people are willing to do conventional things even in the face of plentiful evidence that the thing in question is a mistake. Because if you buy gold at $1000 an ounce and it tanks, you can always hide behind the fig leaf of, “Well gosh, everyone was doing it!  So sure it was a mistake, but at least it wasn’t a stupid one!” Whereas if you fail doing something original or otherwise daring, you’ll be open to charges of, “What were you thinking? No one’s ever done that — why didn’t you do what’s tried and trued? What are you, stupid?”

Fear of looking stupid has two components. The first, described above, is largely unconscious and emotional. The second is conscious and calculated. If you’re a McCain or RNC staffer and you know the tried-and-true approach is going to fail this time, what are your incentives for trying to adapt?  You’re apt to lose against the higher-ups, anyway, who are gripped by inertia. And even if you prevail organizationally but your daring new strategy doesn’t win the election (highly probable, given the fundamentals of this race), people will hit you with the, “What are you, stupid?” charge, which will damage your career prospects. Whereas, if you lose the election doing what’s always worked before, you won’t look stupid, you can blame the brutal 2008 election fundamentals, and you’ll have a job working for the Republican nominee in 2012.

So the Republicans have by reflex adopted a fire-up-the-theocrat-base; spiced it up with an attempt to lure women sufficiently gullible or gender-obsessed to vote against their ideological and common sense interests; and undergirded it with the usual tribalist, culture war appeals we saw in most of the Republican convention speeches. I almost can’t blame them — not just because, after all, the bullshit has worked before, but because the Democrats are still so inept in combating it. At least the Dems can rely on outsiders like The New Yorker.

For me, probably the most fascinating aspect of McCain’s pick (aside from watching Republican heads explode as they try to defend it) has been watching the way the glandular right has fallen in love with her.  In fact, I received an email from a guy the other day who proclaimed, “I love Sarah Palin!”  I wrote back that it must be love at first sight.  And these are the same people who accuse the left of surrendering their judgment on Obama, of falling in love, of believing Obama is The One, blah blah blah…

Let’s assume too that Sarah Palin, because of her looks, her religious views, her personality, or whatever, seems like your kind of person and you really, really like her, or even love her. I don’t understand how you get from there to “and therefore she should be next-in-line for the presidency.” In what other field do people make decisions this way? “…and therefore she should operate on my child.”  “…and therefore he should run a billion-dollar company.” “…and therefore she should repair my car.”

“and therefore she should be next-in-line for the presidency.” And the people saying it call themselves “conservative!” It amazes me.

The good news is, she won’t be.