By Wednesday morning, scores of bloggers and pundits were comparing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to Tom Eagleton, the Missouri senator whose abortive selection as George McGovern’s 1972 running mate helped doom the Democrat’s challenge to President Richard Nixon.
Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft seems to have been the first to invoke the Eagleton comparison, within hours of John McCain’s announcement of his running mate, but she had plenty of company after Monday’s news that Palin’s teenage daughter is pregnant. Richard Gizbert of Huffington Post flatly pronounced Palin “the new Thomas Eagleton” and predicted that she would withdraw “within the next week or so.” By Tuesday, Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly had an article online examining the comparison in detail.
Yet nothing in the attacks that Democrats or the media have made against Palin compares to the scandal that brought down Eagleton — a hidden history of severe mental illness he hadn’t disclosed to McGovern before his selection as running mate. And judging from the way Republicans have rallied to Palin’s defense, it seems highly unlikely she will be bumped from the ticket.
Indeed, the spectacle of a media feeding frenzy over a working mother and her pregnant teenager seems to have produced a backlash that could have an effect quite the opposite of what Palin’s enemies originally imagined. She may yet turn out to be the anti-Eagleton — that rare choice of a running mate who makes a positive difference in a presidential election.
Firestorm and backlash
Democrats initially slammed McCain’s selection of the relatively unknown 44-year-old governor as a weak contrast to Barack Obama’s choice of 65-year-old Sen. Joe Biden. Clinton aide Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) called the Palin pick evidence of “political panic” by the GOP. Obama spokesman Bill Burton mocked Palin as “the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience.”
Palin’s staunch conservatism, however, made her an instant favorite of many who had previously been skeptical toward the maverick McCain. David Keene of the American Conservative Union predicted she would help energize those who have previously been “lukewarm” about McCain’s candidacy, and polls indicated the addition of Palin to the ticket immediately narrowed the “enthusiasm gap” that has plagued the Republicans this year.
“Palin’s selection … clearly is firing up the GOP rank and file,” Rasmussen Reports found in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, with 57 percent of Republicans saying they were “eager to vote for McCain. Previous surveys have not shown this level of GOP enthusiasm.”
The real firestorm began when left-wing bloggers floated bizarre Internet rumors that Palin’s infant son was actually her grandson. Monday, the Palins announced that their 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. The National Enquirer claimed this was in response to their questions, although Time magazine reported that daughter Bristol’s pregnancy with her hockey-player fiancé was no secret in their hometown.
Media critics piled on, with Sally Quinn of the Washington Post writing: “This may be a hard one for the Republican conservative family-values crowd to swallow. Of course, this can happen in any family. But it must certainly raise the question among the evangelical base about whether Sarah Palin has been enough of a hands-on mother.”
Yet the “evangelical base” clearly sided with the Palin family against the media. Pro-life activist Kristan Hawkins said her group, Students for Life of America, was “excited to see that Bristol has chosen to put someone else above herself and give life to her child. She should be praised for making such a responsible decision.”
Palin’s critics, apparently, had gone too far and produced a backlash. By Wednesday, a Rasmussen survey found that more than half of respondents felt that reporters were “trying to hurt” Palin with their coverage.
What the media firestorm had done, however, was to generate intense interest in Palin, proving P.T. Barnum’s old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Some 40 million viewers tuned in to see Palin’s Wednesday acceptance speech — topping the primetime audience for Obama’s speech in Denver a week earlier. And her speech was almost universally acclaimed a success, with even liberal Tom Shales of the Washington Post calling it a night when “John McCain’s brilliantly screwy choice for a running mate changed from laughingstock to national star.”
What about the Eagleton analogies that had enjoyed a boomlet before Palin’s speech? They were misconceived from the start. McGovern’s choice of Eagleton was intended as a sop to the “Old Guard” of the Democratic Party, a safe, sensible choice to calm those concerned about McGovern’s reputation anti-war radicalism. Eagleton’s history of mental illness — severe depression with suicidal tendencies — made him clearly unfit for the vice presidency, but he tried to stay on the ticket anyway. So McGovern looked incompetent for choosing Eagleton, and then looked like the bad guy for dumping him.
The worst scandal associated with Palin is her effort to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police and that was a situation where, as Allahpundit says, she was “morally right even if she’s ethically wrong.” Her teenage daughter’s premarital pregnancy might be embarrassing, but it’s also a circumstance with which millions of other families can sympathize.
While she will face further challenges, especially her Oct. 2 debate with Biden in St. Louis, Palin emerged from her crisis-filled first week in the national spotlight clearly strengthened. She is clearly an asset, not a debit, to the Republican ticket.