Mark Shields - 07/10/09
Ugly Republican Backbiting

Losing presidential campaigns are a lot like failed marriages. In their aftermath, both unhappy experiences regularly leave similar casualties: open wounds, paralyzing self-doubt and an irresistible urge to settle personal scores.

All are present in the fallout from the unflattering portrait of 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, painted (anonymously) by veterans of John McCain's presidential campaign in the current Vanity Fair by accomplished journalist Todd S. Purdum.

Conservative writer-activist Bill Kristol, an early promoter of Palin and a longtime admirer of McCain, has accused McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt of badmouthing Palin's mental state within the McCain campaign. Schmidt retaliated by sarcastically saluting Kristol, the former vice president's chief of staff, for his "management of Dan Quayle's public image."

The only casualties from this civil war in the political leper colony are Republicans.

Relentless critics of Palin willfully ignore her charisma and attractiveness, especially to those comprising the base of the party, while the Alaska governor's uncritical defenders refuse to acknowledge that, on balance, she was an Election Day net negative for John McCain.

First, the Palin attraction. The vote for president is the most personal vote that we Americans cast. Understanding that failed presidencies are more frequently the result of fatal flaws of personality or character - rather than lack of intellect - voters seek a comfort level with a presidential nominee, searching for somebody whom they can trust and like enough to "have in their living room" for at least four years.

Consider the inspired question asked during last fall's campaign in one Wall Street Journal-NBC News national poll: "Of the four candidates running for president and vice president, with which one would you most like to have dinner?"

The answers were revealing about feelings toward the nominees. The first dinner-date choice - of 40 percent of voters - was Barack Obama. Only 15 percent preferred the company of McCain, while just 7 percent named Joe Biden. Palin, the least known of the quartet, was the favorite of 33 percent of 2008 voters. That is real appeal.

Palin's drag on the McCain candidacy was conclusively revealed in the answers to this Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll question during the campaign: Do you think Sarah Palin (or Joe Biden) is qualified to be president? By an overwhelming 74 percent to 18 percent margin, voters judged Biden qualified to assume the responsibilities of chief executive. The prospect of Palin in the Oval Office was not reassuring to the electorate. By a 55 percent to 40 percent landslide verdict, voters found Palin unqualified to fill the top job.

In the judgment of savvy Republican Scott Reed, a McCain advisor-advocate, the Arizona senator - by his pick of the untested Alaska governor to be his running-mate - undercut the case McCain, himself, had made against the inexperience of Obama, then only four years removed from the Illinois state Senate. With rookie Palin standing next to - and potentially in for - the 72-year-old cancer-survivor McCain, the Republican argument that Democrat Obama was unprepared to deal with the challenges of a threatening world was no longer credible.

McCain is apparently no longer charmed by his former ticket-mate. When asked on "The Tonight Show" this past April about GOP candidates for 2012, he listed governors - Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, Utah's and U.S. ambassador-designate to China Jon Huntsman, Florida's Charlie Crist and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney. McCain continued that there are "a lot of governors out there who are young and dynamic. I've left out somebody's name, and I'm going to hear about it." Sarah who?

But the lesson from the continuing intra-party backbiting over the last campaign is clear. While it's a long, uphill journey back after thumping national defeats in 2006 and 2008, the first step for Republicans is simple: No more circular firing squads.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.