Republican Lament: What If Sarah Palin Never Happened?

Now that it’s clear that Sarah Palin, on the whole, has been more of a liability than an asset to John McCain, the following question becomes almost irresistible: What if McCain had picked someone else?

“I think the dynamics would be different in Pennsylvania,” that state’s former governor, Tom Ridge, acknowledged a few days ago when asked how the G.O.P. might have fared had he been part of it. “I think we’d be foolish not to admit it publicly.”

McCain’s final, Hail Mary attempt at engineering a November victory now hinges on somehow winning Pennsylvania, a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 and where he now trails Barack Obama by about ten points in most polls. Whether the mere presence of Ridge, who last stood for election in the state in 1998, would be enough to erase that gap is doubtful, but he surely would have helped more than Palin has.

McCain, supposedly, was interested in putting Ridge on the ticket, in part because of Pennsylvania but also because the two fellow veterans have a close and long-standing personal bond, one that dates back to the mid-1980s when they served in the House together. But as a V.P. prospect, Ridge was non-starter because of his pro-choice views.

He wasn’t the only McCain favorite done in by fear of a backlash from the right. There is considerable evidence that McCain really wanted to tap Joe Lieberman for his No. 2 slot. Not only are the two of them personal friends and Senate allies with a shared worldview, but the selection of Lieberman, a former Democrat, would have reinforced the “country first” message that McCain has been struggling to sell to independent voters.

But, as a lengthy article in the newest New Yorker suggests, McCain was “scared off” from choosing Lieberman by campaign aides and conservative leaders who warned of chaos at the Republican convention if the pro-choice and pro-gay rights Lieberman were nominated. So Lieberman settled for a keynote speech instead, but with polls now showing that Palin is the top reason voters are hesitant to support McCain it seems fair to wonder if the political consequences of picking Lieberman really would have been worse.

“I was pushing Joe because it would transcend politics as we know it – two people who put country ahead of party,” Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and McCain confidant who relentlessly championed the Lieberman for V.P. cause, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Graham said that Palin has “energized our base better than anybody we could have picked, and we needed that,” which was a polite way of avoiding the question of whether he still believed Lieberman was the better choice.

The what-if game is also being played with Mitt Romney, who was the closest thing to a consensus running-mate favorite within the Republican Party. A Romney selection would have been welcomed by most of the conservative leaders who were threatening to undermine Lieberman and Ridge. And Romney, with his business background, could have helped the G.O.P. ticket communicate far more competence and authority on economic issues, which have come to define the fall campaign. Plus, his Michigan roots could theoretically have made that state, which McCain pulled his resources from a few weeks ago, a viable target. (While Romney hasn’t lived in the state for decades, his family name remains well known and was clearly worth something in the state’s January primary, which Romney won – the high-point of his ill-fated candidacy.)

Romney was apparently nixed because McCain still resented his hyper-aggressive and cynically transparent primary season attacks. Romney’s naked pursuit of power at the expense of seemingly all personal convictions likely led McCain to conclude – correctly – that his interest in the V.P. slot was entirely rooted in positioning himself for the 2012 presidential race, and not in forming a true campaigning and governing partnership with McCain. Nor did it help Romney that some of his most enthusiastic backers in the party fomented the ant-Lieberman and anti-Ridge movements that sank their V.P. chances – and angered McCain.

Of all three of these jilted running-mates – Ridge, Lieberman and Romney – it can safely be said: They would have performed far better on the campaign trail and chased away far fewer swing voters than Palin has.

Romney, for instance, is a glib public performer who would have ably fielded the questions that so flummoxed Palin in her train-wreck interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric – interviews that permanently undid all of the inroads Palin had made with swing voters during her mesmerizing convention speech.

And Lieberman’s selection would have had the same wild-card quality as Palin’s, an unorthodox pick that would have attracted curiosity from casual swing voters. When these voters looked closer at Palin, they saw a woefully unprepared and unseasoned novice and wondered about McCain’s judgment in choosing her. With Lieberman, they would have seen someone a little boring, but in a seemingly mature and reassuring way that would have spoken well of McCain’s judgment. Ridge would have had a similar effect, although he wouldn’t have attracted nearly as much interest as Lieberman, given his more conventional political biography.

The conventional wisdom that Ridge and Lieberman would fatally split the Republican Party remains dubious – particularly in Lieberman’s case. No, neither would have attracted the crowds that Palin has generated at campaign events this fall — but have you listened to what those crowds have been shouting about Obama?

As the election has neared, the primal fear of Obama among much of the Republican base has become painfully apparent. These voters may not have liked McCain (and probably still don’t), but their genuine alarm at the prospect of an Obama presidency would have led them to turn out and vote for McCain anyway – even with Lieberman on the ticket. And to the extent that they called McCain names in the process, this would have only reinforced McCain’s credibility with the Bush-wary middle-of-the road voters whose support he has steadily lost this fall – thanks in no small part to Palin.

It may be true that when Wall Street collapsed in September it made the presidential race fundamentally unwinnable for McCain. But it may also be true that his V.P. decision in late August achieved the same thing. Republican Lament: What If Sarah Palin Never Happened?