No Way to Pick a Running Mate: From Lieberman to Romney to Palin

ST. PAUL—Word that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant was easily the biggest bit of non-Gustav-related news to emerge from the opening day of the Republican convention.

It’s doubtful that this revelation will end up hurting the G.O.P. ticket in the fall—Ms. Palin’s statement made it clear that her daughter plans to keep the child and marry the father, the least politically explosive denouement for such a dicey situation—but it nonetheless seems to confirm a widespread suspicion: Ms. Palin was not thoroughly vetted by John McCain’s team.

Otherwise, this news would not be leaking on the convention’s opening day. Also since last Friday, we’ve learned that Ms. Palin, whom the McCain camp wants to portray as a courageous crusader against government corruption, initially favored securing federal funds for her state’s notorious “bridge to nowhere” project (she bragged about opposing it in her speech last Friday), served as a director for a 527 group organized by indicted Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and will soon testify under oath in an investigation into whether she dismissed her state police commissioner for personal reasons.

None of this is enough to stir comparisons to Tom Eagleton, the Missouri senator who was forced to resign from the 1972 Democratic ticket when revelations of past electroshock therapy emerged. But given how little is known about Ms. Palin outside of Alaska and—apparently—within the McCain campaign, the potential for further and more serious revelations is very real.

And that prompts the question of why Mr. McCain was so eager to put her on the ticket. Here’s one suggestion: It’s Karl Rove’s fault.

Consider this possible series of events. Mr. McCain, well aware that he was facing an uphill fight in the fall and in need of creating extra excitement (and distance from the G.O.P. establishment and its poisonous poll ratings), was always inclined to make an outside-the-box VP pick—and for months he had one name in mind: Joe Lieberman.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman have become, both personally and politically, as close as two politicians can be, and have traveled the country together (often with Lindsey Graham) since late last year. As the Democrats’ 2000 VP nominee, Mr. Lieberman was already basically vetted, so Mr. McCain knew he could announce the Connecticut senator’s selection at the last minute with confidence that there’d be no Palin-like revelations. And, in fact, a last-minute announcement of Mr. Lieberman probably would have been essential, to avoid weeks of pre-convention media speculation about floor fights and protests from anti-abortion activists.

But then Mr. Rove and other prominent Republican establishment power players essentially sabotaged Mr. Lieberman—ostensibly because of his pro-choice views (and nominal ties to Senate Democrats), but really for a much different, more Machiavellian reason: They wanted Mitt Romney on the ticket.

This desire had nothing to do with electing John McCain in 2008. Mr. Rove and other Republicans who rose to prominence in George W. Bush’s Washington do not and will never enjoy the level of access and clout with Mr. McCain—whether as a senator, candidate or president—that they did with Mr. Bush. A McCain presidency means little to them in terms of their influence within the G.O.P. and in the D.C. world.

But Mr. Romney is a much different story. The ideologically flexible former Massachusetts governor, sort of like Mr. Bush (and George H. W. Bush before him), does not possess a set of deeply held beliefs and convictions that he wishes to pursue through the presidency. He seems much more enamored of the status and stature that comes with the office, and is perfectly willing and eager to make whatever political calculations are necessary to attain it. He also has the raw ingredients of a strong national candidate—looks, money, communication skills and a picture-perfect family. This makes Mr. Romney the ideal post-Bush vehicle for Mr. Rove et al.

Unfortunately for them, Mr. Romney’s bid for the nomination fell short. But his campaign was hardly a bust. He built name recognition, developed deep ties with many conservative and interest-group leaders, and created and honed a new image as a leading voice for conservatives—a far cry from the social liberalism that marked his Massachusetts days. Mr. Romney ended his 2008 bid as the early front-runner for the next open Republican nomination.

This explains why Mr. Romney, after licking his wounds for a few days, so quickly and thoroughly lined up behind Mr. McCain—a transparent effort to win a place on the fall ticket. And it explains why Mr. Rove loudly campaigned for Mr. Romney’s selection as VP. This year’s VP slot, after all, would be particularly valuable. A McCain loss—which seemed much more likely this spring than it does now—would open the G.O.P. nomination for 2012, with Mr. Romney cementing his status as front-runner with a strong showing on the fall campaign trail. And given his advanced age, even a McCain victory might still mean an open nomination in four years.

The Romney-for-VP effort proceeded rather smoothly in the late spring and early summer months, with Mr. Romney harnessing his considerable personal charm to ingratiate himself behind the scenes with Mr. McCain and his wife while also never passing up a chance to appear on television to spout off the latest McCain-campaign talking points. To many observers, Mr. Romney came to seem like the safest and most logical pick for Mr. McCain. He’d been a loyal and effective surrogate, and as the VP nominee, he would mollify (most of) the base, bring in big money and maybe even swing Michigan—increasingly a must-win state for Mr. McCain.

But a few weeks ago, the extent of Mr. McCain’s desire to anoint Mr. Lieberman became apparent. He began dropping public hints about tapping a pro-choice running mate and his allies started laying the groundwork for Mr. Lieberman’s selection. And that’s when Mr. Rove and Mr. Romney’s Republican establishment allies mobilized. If they could kill the Lieberman idea, they figured, the dearth of other plausible VP picks would force Mr. McCain to revert to Mr. Romney, almost by default. Who else was he going to pick?

Their campaign, which relied on playing up the idea of a conservative revolt against a pro-choice VP nominee (a sound strategy given the media’s willingness to fan the flames), succeeded—but only partly. The anti-Lieberman noise was loud and distracting enough to dissuade Mr. McCain from following his gut, but it also offended his sense of propriety—especially (presumably) when he learned that Mr. Rove had personally contacted Mr. Lieberman to demand that he withdraw from VP consideration.

Surely, Mr. McCain put two and two together, realizing that Mr. Romney’s backers were not interested in McCain ’08 nearly as much as they were in Romney ’12. Not only was this insulting, it also had very real implications for a potential McCain presidency. 

So Mr. McCain reluctantly dropped the Lieberman idea, but instead of defaulting to Mr. Romney, he scrambled to line up a No. 2 who would grab as much attention as Mr. Lieberman while not fomenting any anger from social conservatives—and who would be loyal to Mr. McCain, and Mr. McCain only, as vice president. There weren’t many choices. And so Sarah Palin it was.

No Way to Pick a Running Mate: From Lieberman to Romney to Palin