Sarah Surprise

Palin’s candidacy is fun to cover but raises serious questions about McCain’s judgment.

See Slate’s complete  Republican National Convention coverage.

John McCain and Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin sure is an exciting candidate—to you, to me, and maybe even to John McCain. Monday we learned that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. The news probably won’t change the political landscape—especially since Barack Obama declared it out of bounds —but the pregnancy is a fitting metaphor for the gestating and growing surprises associated with the Palin candidacy.

Each new fact we learn about Sarah Palin—her reversal on the bridge to nowhere, her disagreements with McCain on issues from windfall profits to global warming, emerging facts about troopergate—contribute to the feeling that this whole Palin thing is being made up as we go along. It may be fun to read about, and it sure is fun to cover, but it also supports the judgment of the Palin pick that I first heard from a Republican veteran shortly after the announcement: “Reckless.”

Obama was supposed to be the risky candidate. That’s certainly how Republicans have painted him. Judging from how he’s run his campaign, though, he’s very conservative. Nevertheless, polls have shown that voters think McCain is the less risky pick by as much as 20 percentage points. Now that McCain has made a high-profile decision essentially defined by its riskiness—observers have called it a “Hail Mary pass” so often, I’m starting to think it’s a play for the Catholic vote—the question is whether McCain has squandered his advantage with voters on the question of risk.

All vice presidential rollouts have bumpy patches. (Biden seems to have missed any big problems, but there’s still time.) Yet because McCain chose Palin quickly, at the last minute, and with little personal contact, the little inconsistencies now bubbling up may reflect more negatively on his judgment than they would have with a more considered pick.

McCain likes to joke about President Bush putting faith in Vladimir Putin based on Bush’s famous ability to see into the Russian leader’s soul. Now McCain has made a high-profile decision based largely on his gut. Maybe he has perfect instincts. But McCain’s campaign has been improving lately because his staff has tempered McCain’s impulses—cutting off his access to reporters, making him speak from cue cards rather than off the cuff. The campaign’s response to Hurricane Gustav shows how disciplined it can be. The vice presidential decision, on the other hand, has the feel of an old-fashioned McCain careen—and he might yet pay the price for it.

Even if the McCain campaign knew everything that might be problematic about Palin—and it doesn’t appear to—her national introduction has had a few ragged patches.  Her role in opposing the bridge to nowhere—the poster child of federal pork—is the first loose thread. Both Palin and McCain mentioned her opposition to it as a central part of her reform credentials. “I told Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ on that bridge to nowhere,” Palin said when her candidacy was announced.  This is no small deal. McCain talks about the bridge to nowhere all the time as the symbolic reason Republicans lost the Congress in 2006.

But it turns out Palin was for the bridge before she was against it, changing her mind just as the politics did. She wins points for being politically nimble, but maybe not for being a rootin’ tootin’ reformer. Maybe, had the campaign time to reflect, it would still have put the same emphasis on the bridge to nowhere. In that case, we reporters would undoubtedly have dismissed this talking point as bad spin. Instead, because Palin was a surprise, we can dismiss this taking point as the result of hasty decision-making.

Another ad hoc element to the Palin pick is the curious defense of her foreign-policy credentials. Republicans and Cindy McCain have mentioned that she understands national-security issues in part because she is governor of Alaska, whose borders nearly touch Russia’s. A day and a half ago, I asked the campaign for an example of her dealings with Russia or the Russians. I’m still waiting. Again, maybe there’s a bad-spin explanation here: They’re swamped and are working to get back to me. Or maybe they just made the claim in haste without checking it.

Then again, people like me asking questions may be just the thing Republicans need to feel better about Palin. For many Republicans, press scrutiny is in and of itself commendable. If the press is challenging you, then you must be worthy. And polls suggest Republicans are rallying around McCain, with a CNN poll showing that the Palin pick may have erased any bounce Obama might have gotten from his convention.

But it’s not just journalists who have questions. Undecided independent voters may, too—not just about Palin, but about McCain’s judgment and decision-making process. With each new surprise, the pressure increases on Palin to perform well and validate McCain’s instinct. It’s the first most important thing she can do for her new boss.