Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Debate

Thanks for all the messages asking me what I thought of the debate. There's a ton of excellent coverage out there already, and I don't want to repeat the commentary you can find at The Daily Dish, Talking Points Memo, Eunomia, and lots of other places. So I'll offer just a few thoughts on matters I haven't seen touched on elsewhere.

I guess the first thing everyone wonders is, "Who won?" I'd have to give the evening to Obama, though not by a lot. My reasoning: Obama had to show that he was "presidential." I think he did. McCain, especially after the preceding week of bizarre drama queen antics, had to show he wasn't having some sort of a meltdown. I think he did. So both achieved their objectives, but Obama's objective was the weightier of the two because it's more likely to move the undecided middle, which at this point is all that really matters. McCain also had to demonstrate that he was vastly superior to Obama on foreign policy. Personally, I think Obama did better here, but even if you think McCain had the edge, foreign policy is supposed to be McCain's bread and butter, so an edge isn't enough.

I think McCain's refusal, or inability to make eye contact with Obama even once is going to hurt him a lot. Mostly people are interpreting his refusal to look at his opponent as contempt. That's a charitable interpretation, and regardless, not one that would attract undecideds to the candidate engaging in it. In fact, my take is that McCain was afraid to look at Obama -- afraid that if he did so, his emotions (fear, anger, whatever) would kick in and knock him off his game. However you want to interpret McCain's failure to make eye contact (or even to glance left at where Obama was standing), it's not going to bring undecideds his way, and will likely alienate many. Similarly, his constant "What Senator Obama doesn't understand" and related refrains must have felt good to him and will please people who plan to vote for him anyway, but likely came across at best as undignified and arrogant to undecideds.

McCain also had a tendency to say, "Trust me, I'll..." or "I promise, I'll...". After eight years of George Bush and in midst of an economic crisis, "Trust me" is a terrible way, indeed, a terrible phrase, to try to move the middle.

Substantively, I would have been disappointed if my expectations weren't already so low. If you think about the substantive differences that were aired, they were tiny compared to the possibilities. Both candidates seem to agree that Georgia and other former satellite countries should be admitted to NATO. Their differences over how and when are important, but not as important as the whole question of what NATO is for at this point, and the costs and benefits of admitting a country like Georgia. Similarly, they both agree that we should be free to make incursions into Pakistan, presumably without any word from Congress, and differ only on whether it's okay to say so out loud. Take a step back and you'll see that this is a hell of a small policy difference compared to, say, should the president be able to direct secret, unauthorized wars in the first place? And can clandestine wars not backed by overt policy even succeed regardless? Etc.

At one point Jim Lehrer asked the candidates if the current economic crisis would affect the way they would "rule" the country once elected. Given the Bush Administration's creeping monarchism, I would have liked one of the candidates to correct Lehrer on his odd diction. Neither did.

The biggest reason I think the evening was Obama's rather than McCain's comes back to brand. McCain was clearly at pains to bolster his Experience brand by emphasizing how long he's been around, how many foreign leaders he's known, how many countries he's visited, how many issues he's been involved with. All of which is fine and under the right circumstances could be advantageous. But as I've written before with regard to Hillary Clinton, this is the wrong marketplace into which to try to introduce a product branded as "Experience." McCain's people realize this, and as I wrote a few days ago, they're trying to respond to marketplace conditions by changing McCain's brand to "Change/Reform." But Change/Reform and Experience are dissonant brand claims, and McCain's own debate efforts undercut his effort to modify the brand. In this regard and in others, McCain is faced with the same conundrum, and making the same mistakes, that Clinton made during the primary. Here's what I wrote about Clinton's branding efforts back in January. The whole post applies equally to McCain today, but here's the main idea:

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency -- that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don't easily fit together in the consumer's mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually, Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn't work -- there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product...

But other things aren't equal, and experience isn't always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr., the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young, inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There's also the question of the suitability of "experience" and "change" as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

"Experience" connotes establishment, status quo, the past -- not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. "Experience" suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of "change" as embodied by Obama -- freshness, excitement, the new, the future -- suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her "experience" brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama's "change" brand, and has therefore been attempting to make "change" a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she'll be "ready on day one" -- to make "a new beginning." The message (which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there's nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren't driven by logic. They're driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters ("if she's so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?") cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, "experience" and "change" are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

At the same time, McCain's primary, and original, brand claim -- experience -- has been badly damaged by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Here's just one of her recent performances:

Watch CBS Videos Online

(BTW, that claim about trade missions? Another... let's call it another falsehood.)

True, Obama has undercut his own core brand of Change by selecting Joe Biden, a six-term senator whose brand -- longevity, insider, experience -- is dissonant with Obama's. But my sense is that it's easier to yoke "experience" in the service of "change" than it is to do the reverse. Also, no matter who he adds to the ticket, Obama just looks and sounds like change (whether he actually represents such a thing is of course a separate matter). McCain, no matter who he adds, looks as though he's been around forever. Once again, in this marketplace, even if McCain hadn't done so much to dilute and distort his brand, he'd have the tougher sell. I think his debate strategy has made it tougher.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Brain Dead

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

--Mark Twain

If you're part of the McCain team, here's what you're thinking.

You didn't know anything substantive about Palin before she was selected (why would you? She wasn't vetted). You meet her. You quickly realize she's bereft of even minimal acquaintance with defense, foreign policy, the economy, climate issues, domestic concerns, or any other area in which a president needs a firm grounding. You realize you can't let her out in public unscripted because she's so unready that a disaster is certain.

Your first response, therefore, is Oh, shit.

(Before denying anything in the above paragraph, you need to explain why, if Palin could exceed or even barely meet the press's and public's increasingly modest expectations, McCain's people won't take off the gag. That they're willing to pay a price for gagging her demonstrates they know removing the gag would be worse. Watch the Letterman clip below. He asks the eminently common sense question: even if McCain himself can't multitask and it made sense for him to suspend his campaign in response to the current economic crisis as he claims, why can't his vice presidential running mate campaign in his stead? If the quarterback can't play, where's the second string?).

You fight panic. You force yourself to think... think, damn it! And you realize -- hey, you don't need to make her an actual expert on any of those tough presidential subjects (and thank God for that, because true expertise in any, let alone all of these areas would be impossible in the time and circumstances available). What you need to do instead is just train her to seem like an expert. Sure, sure, you think, feeling better now, feeling like there's hope. It's like the difference between being a real martial artist, and being able to realistically bust out a few moves in front of the cameras on a movie set. Not that the second one is easy, but it's nothing compared to the first. That's the way to look at it -- she doesn't have to be an expert; she just has to play one on TV.

You're nodding now. Positive self talk. You can do this. This can be done. It's not like you have to pull it off for two years or anything. The election's on November 4, for God's sake... that's right around the corner. Look how long Bush and company kept the war in Iraq going by continually announcing new six-month milestones. If they can do that for six years, surely you can do this for six weeks.

But you're going to have to let her out at some point. No getting around that. Eventually, people are going to start asking what you're hiding, what you're afraid of. Whether you're running a campaign worthy of Vladimir Putin, whether this mystery candidate is really the Manchurian Candidate.

Panic starts to rise again. You beat it back. You grab a pencil and paper. Write it down, come up with a method. Plan the work, work the plan. Don't panic. Think. You can do it. The plan looks like this:

1. Push back "eventually" as long as possible. Inject as many smears about Obama's patriotism and as much bullshit about lipstick and kindergarten sex education as you can to obscure what you're really up to. Sure, McCain will take heat for turning the "Straight Talk Express" into the Bullshit Express, for sullying his alleged honor and integrity, but better that be the campaign narrative than incontrovertible proof that he selected a cipher to be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.

2. Hide her. Force feed her everything she needs to know to avoid making a catastrophic mistake when she's finally allowed to open her mouth. Remember, you don't have to turn her into an expert, just someone who plays one on TV. Just enough to avoid that catastrophic mistake.

3. The preceding two points reinforce each other. The longer you hide her, the more you can improve her acting skills and the less the public expects. When "eventually" finally happens, you push her out in front of the press and public. At this point, you've been hiding her so long everyone's expecting her to be as vacuous as the icy void of space. Instead, she gets through her talking points without a major gaffe. The narrative then becomes, "She's not as clueless as we were expecting." You shrug and say, "What was the big deal? Told you we had nothing to hide."

Lower expectations dramatically, bone up her acting skills... with a whole lot of luck, you can get the two to cross on a graph. In the meantime, it's the political high-wire act of the century. But hey, they don't pay you the big bucks for nothing.

For a variety of reasons, it won't work.

First, there's the difficulty, noted above, of bringing someone like Palin up to speed even as a pretend-expert.

Second, there's the hostility the McCain camp is engendering even in the supine mainstream media. When you've been in the tank for your buddy John McCain as long as the MSM has, and he then repeatedly ignores your gentle hints that his statements are, shall we say, at odds with the factual record, making you look like co-opted, unappreciated fools, and he then turns on his erstwhile best buds and accuses them of not even being journalists, the backlash from the erstwhile best buds is going to get downright personal. And without the press to enable it, the narrative you're desperately trying to create -- "she's better than you thought!" -- won't take root outside the rightwing blogosphere.

Then there's the economy, the wars, Katrina, the whole Republican brand...

But wait, there's still more. Choosing Palin destroyed one of the ventricles of McCain's brand: his claim to experience. You can't build a brand on experience and then select a neophyte like Palin to be your understudy. So what McCain and Palin are now trying to do, fundamentally, is build a new brand, about Change and Reform, in under two months. This is a hell of a hard thing to do -- dot bombs in Silicon Valley spent millions on just such efforts, and I'm not aware of any that succeeded. And here, the task is particularly daunting because the packaging in which McCain and Palin are attempting to wrap themselves is so at odds with the facts of the underlying product (more on political brand dissonance here). John McCain not only looks like the establishment, this son and grandson of admirals and quarter-century-in-congress-and-the-senate politician is the establishment. Meanwhile, every one of Palin's claim to be a reformer, from "thanks, but no thanks" to the Bridge to Nowhere to selling the plane on eBay to firing the governor's cook to taking a paycut to believing in transparency in government has been proven false.

So abruptly changing the McCain brand from Experience to Change/Reform is as difficult a maneuver as Volvo suddenly abandoning "safety" in favor of "speed." A change like that is damn near impossible under any circumstances. When the underlying product doesn't support -- and in fact contradicts -- the new brand direction, sales will be a disaster. As the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear, you might even see management begin to indulge in increasingly bizarre and desperate gambits: contradicting themselves again and again on the health of the company (or of the economy); more lying, even on trivial matters; lashing out at shareholders who criticize their plans (or at the press); trying to postpone or cancel shareholder meetings (or to hide from reporters); or suspend a campaign; or cancel debates; or run from TV appearances). Anything to avoid, or just delay, the inevitable rendezvous with reality.

Speculation: what we're seeing now is not just the wheels coming off the McCain campaign following serial collisions with the real world. McCain's recent pleas to suspend the campaign and cancel debates are evidence that the candidate's age is showing. Members of the media (before concluding McCain was just using them) used to laud McCain's remarkable vigor. But even if he was vigorous during the primary, at some point the relentless pace and grinding duration of a presidential campaign will take their toll. McCain's people know if he has even one senior moment, or one of the intemperate outbursts for which he's known, during a debate, all hope will be lost. I think they've been seeing more of such moments in private, and are now trying to find a way to get him some rest before he gets lost in public. And I'm not the only one wondering. Here's George Will and company; here's David Letterman's scathing mockery.

A significant percentage of the country will vote for McCain and Palin no matter what. Likewise, a significant percentage for Obama and Biden. The independent middle only needs to move a little one way or the other to swing the election. By definition, that middle is considerate. The more time they have to consider the monumental bullshitter that John McCain has become, and how frighteningly unready his understudy is, the more independents will break for Obama.

As with Obama's race with Clinton, when the general election ends in November, people will look back and realize it had been over for a long time already. What we're seeing now is the McCain campaign's fingers continuing to twitch long after the brain has died.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Palin Doctrine

Sarah Palin's ignorance of foreign policy is remarkable not just in itself, but also for the way, along with her candidacy, it continues to expose the naked hypocrisy that characterizes so much of what the Republican party has allowed itself to become.

If you've watched the single interview the McCain team has dared to let her give in the two weeks since she was nominated, you've seen the following exchange:

Gibson: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?
Palin: In what respect, Charlie?
Gibson: What do you interpret it to be?
Palin: His worldview?

Palin has been justifiably slammed for not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is, and the unprincipled right has rallied to her defense by claiming there's so much ambiguity in the Bush Doctrine, so many versions, so many interpretations and elements and addenda and visions and revisions, that obviously Palin was just giving a careful, thoughtful response. It's all bullshit, of course, and Glenn Greenwald has a great series of videos and transcripts of the people who just before being blinded by the impenetrable opaqueness of the Bush Doctrine all agreed on exactly what it meant.

(By the way, what could be said about a doctrine so ambiguous that even its cheerleaders profess not to understand what it means? You'd think a latent sense of personal dignity would prevent Republicans from advancing excuses as lame as their latest, but you would be mistaken.)

Now, admittedly, doctrines are simply policies. But if you call it a policy, it won't get named after you or your political heroes (who would remember The Monroe Policy?), so self-important presidents and their sycophantic cheerleaders in the press like to puff ordinary policies up into heroically grand Doctrines. Okay, fine. But this is what makes Palin's interview the more appalling: it's clear that not only does she not know what the Bush Doctrine is, she doesn't know what a presidential doctrine is, period.

Think about it. Yes, if it were true that Palin were an expert on the Bush Doctrine who was just giving a careful, nuanced response, she would have asked something like, "Which aspect, Charlie?" (with a few specifics thrown in to alleviate any suspicions that she's a foreign policy neophyte, alleviating such ridiculous suspicions being one of the key objectives of the interview). But even if she didn't know diddly about the Bush Doctrine, a nodding acquaintance with the concept of presidential concepts generally would have steered her away from her non-sequitur of a fishing expedition. After all, no one with even a clue about what a presidential doctrine is would respond to a question like Gibson's with a query about the worldview of the president in question.

Imagine this exchange:

Gibson: Do you agree with the Monroe Doctrine?
Palin: In what respect, Charlie?
Gibson: What do you interpret it to be?
Palin: His worldview?

Right, Palin's question makes no sense there, either. Nor would it have made sense had Gibson asked her about the Carter Doctrine, the Reagan Doctrine, or about whether she thought it was silly and self-important for presidents to have "doctrines" named after them in the first place. It wouldn't have made sense because Palin doesn't know anything about the entire subject.

So maybe instead of being tutored by Joe Lieberman and company, Palin should be watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Of course, none of this will matter to the people who are packaging Palin as a foreign policy expert because Alaska is near Russia, and it won't matter to the people who want to believe in the "Sarah is Experienced" myth. We used to call this kind of attitude willful ignorance. I think we can now just call it the Palin Doctrine.

P.S. I've received several emails from people complaining about my use of the word "bullshit" because they find it offensive. I understand your point and appreciate the feedback, but I think on this issue reasonable people can differ. It's true there are many other words that also describe the McCain/Palin campaign: lies, deception, distortion, dishonesty, untruth, etc., but nothing quite captures the heart of their campaign like bullshit, so I'll go on using the term. And while I commend these commenters for caring enough to share their thoughts with me, I can't help but wonder: have you expressed some outrage too at the purveyors of the bullshit, and not just at the people who are reporting it?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Obama Eats Special Needs Children!

James Taranto has an article in today's Wall Street Journal in which he professes outrage at anyone who would suggest John McCain picked Sarah Palin because she was walked the pro-life walk (as, indeed, she has). The article is worth a read: Taranto distorts the meaning of some of the quotes he uses in a way that's reminiscent of the recent McCain camp excrescences on lipstick and sex education, then whips himself into a fit of righteous indignity:

This is worse than tasteless or even unhinged. It is depraved. It represents an inversion of any reasonable conception of right and wrong, including liberal conceptions.

Holy hyperbole, Batman! But is it really so outlandish and offensive to suggest that McCain picked Palin because of her pro-life credentials?

This is a candidate who has barely set foot outside the country, who has never met a foreign leader, who had never evinced even a rudimentary understanding of or even interest in foreign policy. Her national security credentials are so lacking that her supporters have had to resort to novel theories about the sources of her expertise, such as that she is a national security expert because Alaska is near Russia, or that she has learned foreign policy "by osmosis" because Russian missiles would pass over Alaska on their way to the continental United States. Even McCain can't come up with a coherent defense of his candidate's foreign policy or national security credentials (although he does manage to come up with two #1 issues facing America. For John McCain, nothing is impossible). Watch this painful video and see.

And here's Governor Palin's first interview since being nominated, where, after two weeks of cramming on national security issues, she doesn't even know what The Bush Doctrine is.

(If you're a principled conservative, if you care about national security, how can you accept this? Seriously.)

The humiliating attempts of Palin's supporters notwithstanding, it's simply impossible to believe that McCain chose Palin for her national security credentials. We know he didn't pick her for that.

How about executive experience? The McCain team has tried to focus more on this one because the national security case is so laughable. And it's true that Palin has been a mayor and is now a governor, so she is not entirely lacking in executive experience. But even if you believe that being mayor of a town of 9000 and serving for a year and half as governor of a state of 600,000 is adequate experience to prepare you to be President of the United States, can you really argue it's enough to outweigh the total lack of foreign policy or national security credibility? If McCain wanted meaningful executive experience -- especially the kind that would outweigh the foreign policy deficit -- he had an almost limitless list of candidates who have far more executive experience than Palin.

So we know McCain didn't pick Palin for her national security acumen, which is nonexistent, or for her executive experience, which is slight. And those seem like two pretty key categories to check off for a potential Commander-in-Chief.

So... why did he pick her?

As I've argued before, there are two reasons: (i) to attract disaffected Hillary supporters and women for whom gender is a key consideration in a candidate; and (ii) to fire up the base. Palin's gender was calculated to achieve objective #1. Objective #2 is achieved by Palin's pro-life stance, the integrity of which is proven by her decision to bear a Down's Syndrome child (to her credit -- on this, she seems no hypocrite. Pork barrel spending and reform, not so much).

So of course McCain chose Palin in large part because of her decision to have her Down's Syndrome baby. Her decision served the substantive objective of firing up the base, and even better, today Republicans are able to use the baby, as Taranto does, to inject another dose of bullshit into the news cycle and make sure everyone is talking about the baby, rather than about Governor Palin's utter lack of qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief. The strategy is: "We'll talk about the baby by saying it's outrageous and offensive to talk about the baby."

So get ready for the next wave of McCain accusations, calculated to dominate two or three more days of news and drown out McCain's and Palin's dreadful recent performances. It'll go something like this: "Obama Slimes Trig Palin and Other Special Needs Children!" And rather than press this obvious -- and winning -- point, that of course McCain picked her because of the baby, she's substantively embarrassingly unqualified, Democrats will apologize, as indeed they already, reflexively, are.

Republicans are very good at this game. Democrats, it seems, just aren't. Some thoughts on why in another post.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

McCain's Honor

What's that quote, sometimes attributed to Twain, other times to Churchill? "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Well, it looks like the truth is belatedly catching up to McCain and Palin on their nonstop "she stopped the bridge to nowhere, she sold the plane on eBay, she fired the governor's mansion cook" attempts to create a hockey mom, reformer, just-folks persona that rests on a tissue of lies.

No, she didn't kill the bridge to nowhere; no, she didn't return the money for the bridge -- she kept it; no, she didn't sell the plane on eBay, and took a loss when she sold it otherwise; no, she didn't fire the governor mansion cook, just let him go during the summer, when she wasn't there anyway; no, she didn't put Wasilla's fiscal house in order, she increased the town's debt; no, she didn't oppose earmarks, she took in more earmark money per capita than any other governor in the United States.

It'll be interesting to see whether the facts carry the day. So often, people will just go on believing what they want to. What's that other Churchill line? "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened."

Here are a few links to the facts:

Many more articles and links on Talking Points Memo.

-- Barry

Sunday, September 07, 2008

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.