Why McCain Still Defends Palin

One of the responsibilities that comes with picking a vice presidential candidate is never admitting that you might have made a bad call—even if it becomes painfully obvious to the rest of the world that you did.

So it was that John McCain withstood a six-minute grilling on Sunday from David Gregory on the subject of Sarah Palin, the woman who would now be a heartbeat away from the presidency had McCain prevailed last fall. McCain would have none of it.

“I love and respect her and her family,” he said. “I’m grateful she agreed to run with me. I am confident she will be a major factor on the national stage and in Alaska as well.”

He wouldn’t agree that Palin is “quitting” as governor (“I think she changed priorities”), said he doubts that she made “a, quote, promise” to Alaskans to serve out her full term, and called her a victim of “the most sustained personal attacks certainly in recent American political history.”

Also, McCain suggested that he and Palin would have won last November, absent the mid-September stock market meltdown: “We were winning and we could have won.” (Alternate explanation: McCain’s post-convention bounce, which very briefly gave him a double-digit lead over Barack Obama, explains why he was still ahead—in some polls—when the market tanked, but even without the crash, polling trends clearly favored Obama.)

That McCain would say any of this is hardly surprising: Since it became tradition for presidential nominees to anoint their own running mates, the VP choice has come to serve as a preliminary test of presidential leadership—and, long after the campaign is over, a key aspect of a presidential candidate’s legacy.

McCain might score points with his old media admirers if he were to admit that he dropped the ball with Palin—that he made an impulse decision and that he now realizes that she is woefully unfit for the presidency—but it would be at the price of his longer-term legacy. By doing so, he’d be validating a version of history that casts him as a reckless power-seeker, the once-honorable man who took leave of his senses in the 2008 campaign and endangered the country. Give him credit for being honest after the fact, the story would go, but let’s all thank God he didn’t win the election.

McCain, of course, has a different legacy in mind, one rooted in vindication. If Obama’s presidency falters the way Jimmy Carter’s once did (and McCain just loves his Obama-Carter analogies), then maybe Americans will come to regret tuning out the old warrior-patriot in 2008. Admitting now that Palin was a blunder would ruin this; it would amount to an acknowledgement that he wasn’t up to the job.

In a way, George H. W. Bush serves a role model for McCain. Bush’s 1988 choice of Dan Quayle as his running mate was met with derision and disbelief similar to that which greeted Palin’s emergence last year. Quayle’s reputation, like Palin’s, only worsened during the fall campaign, but the political climate was too favorable to Bush for any of it to matter, and he still won the election comfortably.

As president, he remained steadfastly loyal to Quayle, even when some of his tope aides, including Jim Baker and Bob Teeter, pushed to dump the VP—fresh off his image-reinforcing “potatoe” gaffe—from the 1992 G.O.P. ticket. But Bush never seriously considered it. His own sense of personal loyalty surely played a role; but he also realized that getting rid of Quayle would amount to a damaging admission that he’d been wrong to choose him in the first place—in other words, that he’d exercised irresponsible leadership.

There is no reward in American politics for copping to an unwise VP pick. George McGovern learned this in 1972, when he tapped Tom Eagleton to be his running mate. Eagleton’s extensive treatment for depression and exhaustion was quickly revealed, and McGovern—after first declaring that he backed the Missourian “1000 percent”—gave in and forced him off the ticket, turning to R. Sargent Shriver as a replacement.

McGovern surely would have lost to Richard Nixon that fall no matter what, but canning Eagleton didn’t help; it only eroded his leadership credentials. By removing Eagleton, he essentially acknowledged everything that his critics (and the media) were saying: that he’d made a hasty, ill-advised pick and flubbed his first leadership test. It’s no wonder that 25 years later, McGovern said that, if he could do it over, he would have kept Eagleton on. He still would have lost, but the damage wouldn’t have been as bad.

Of course, just like McGovern and Bush, McCain could have avoided all of his pre- and post-election VP headaches simply by making a more considered choice in the first place. It’s a good lesson for future nominees: The VP selection process tends to revolve around electoral-map calculations, but the consequences—even for a losing candidate—may be felt long after November.

Why McCain Still Defends Palin