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McCain's Dilemma: Romney or Palin More Qualified in '08?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, as we all know. It also makes for rather odd, cold evenings where we find out who’s going to be sleeping on the couch. Such was the case when Politico confronted 2008 GOP presidential candidate Senator John McCain on the subject of why he didn’t select Mitt Romney as his running mate.

Politico chose to posit the idea that Mitt’s tax returns, delivered to McCain during the vetting process, somehow turned up some dirt which disqualified him. Let’s go to the quotes, shall we?

"Of course not," McCain told POLITICO when asked if the contents of Romney's tax returns disqualified him from the selection process. "I don’t know what depths these people won’t reach. Obviously, it’s just outrageous. That’s just outrageous. It shows the – it’s so disgraceful for them to allege something that they have absolutely no knowledge of."

Asked why he chose not to go with Romney, McCain said: "Oh come on, because we thought that Sarah Palin was the better candidate. Why did we not take [Tim] Pawlenty, why did we not take any of the other 10 other people. Why didn’t I? Because we had a better candidate, the same way with all the others. ... Come on, why? That’s a stupid question."

This is one of those stories which pops up during the hazy, lazy, days of mid-summer in an election year and is fun, but will sink off the radar long before the rest of the nation begins to realize that they actually have to vote this year. Senator McCain finds himself placed briefly on the hot seat, tasked as a surrogate for Mitt Romney 2012, while being challenged to defend his failed attempt of four years earlier. What’s a former candidate to do?

Thrust into this unenviable position, McCain has to simultaneously tackle two NFL quality runners while wearing six-inch spiked heels. On the one hand, he has to defend Mitt’s decision not to release more than 1.5 years of tax returns. This is a tough sell at best, given the current nominee’s history of his father setting the standard. But he gamely carried the torch, bolstering Romney’s claim that there was nothing in there which was politically damaging.

But if that’s the case, why not take Mitt along for the ride back in ’08? Here’s where the treacle gets a bit stickier. Given little time to ponder the response, McCain chose to claim that Palin trumped Romney by virtue of being the “better candidate.” In another season, such a remark might well have flown under the radar. But this season sees an impressive online movement to “vet the Prez,” pushing the assumption that President Obama’s pre-election check list wasn’t examined closely enough. Romney himself -- part and parcel of the question at hand -- is open to suggestions that his financial history remains in need of a closer look before we hand over the keys to the White House.

That brings McCain to the subject of Sarah Palin -- possibly the most rapidly chosen and least-vetted candidate for residency in the U.S. Naval Observatory in recent history  (with all due apologies to Dan Quayle). (Roughly 31% of you, according to most polls, are invited to stop reading at this point and fire up the torches in the comment section.) McCain could have said nearly anything else at that point, but he somehow went with declaring the Wonder from Wasilla as being more fully qualified to assume the duties of the presidency on day one. The real question lurking behind the scenes here is, why?

The most likely answer might appear to be that McCain had to come up with an answer that works in the summer of 2012, not 2008. A quick look back at some of the choices he was pondering at the time will reveal a few names which may seem awfully familiar to you today. They include -- aside from Mitt, who had just concluded a bloody battle with him -- T-Paw, Rob Portman, Tom Ridge, and Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is the point where, if we are to be honest, we need to remember that this was before his nomination of Palin transformed her into a supernova-style magnet of conservative adoration. At that time, she was, to all but a handful of hard-core wonks, a name that 99% of the nation wouldn’t have recognized. She was a former mayor of a small town who was still in her first term as governor of a low-population state. To make the claim that she outshone the likes of the rest of the names on that list in terms of “most qualified” to serve in his absence is a bit more than a stretch.

But today we’re in a different ball game. McCain needs to avoid the appearance of painting Romney in an unfavorable light. Obviously he can’t say that there was something shady in Mitt’s tax returns which turned him off. (And for the record, I’m in the camp of those who think there will be nothing found there but the favorite Obama attack line that Mitt has made a lot of money.) He also can’t question his qualifications, which would be hard to do given Romney’s notably impressive resume. So he had to fall back on an implication that candidates simply go with the “most qualified” person as their running mate, leading to the unspoken conclusion that whoever gets the nod from Mitt will fall into the same category.

Unfortunately, it was a rather inept moment to play that card. But in the context laid out above, I suppose I can see why he would say it.