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When McCain picked Palin, liberal journalists coordinated the best line of attack

Posted By Jonathan Strong On 3:09 AM 07/22/2010 In Blog - Jonathan Strong | 204 Comments

In the hours after Sen. John McCain announced his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the last presidential race, members of an online forum called Journolist struggled to make sense of the pick. Many of them were liberal reporters, and in some cases their comments reflected a journalist’s instinct to figure out the meaning of a story.

But in many other exchanges, the Journolisters clearly had another, more partisan goal in mind: to formulate the most effective talking points in order to defeat Palin and McCain and help elect Barack Obama president. The tone was more campaign headquarters than newsroom.

The conversation began with a debate over how best to attack Sarah Palin. “Honestly, this pick reeks of desperation,” wrote Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation in the minutes after the news became public. “How can anyone logically argue that Sarah Pallin [sic], a one-term governor of Alaska, is qualified to be President of the United States? Train wreck, thy name is Sarah Pallin.”

Not a wise argument, responded Jonathan Stein, a reporter for Mother Jones. If McCain were asked about Palin’s inexperience, he could simply point to then candidate Barack Obama’s similarly thin resume. “Q: Sen. McCain, given Gov. Palin’s paltry experience, how is she qualified to be commander in chief?,” Stein asked hypothetically. “A: Well, she has much experience as the Democratic nominee.”

“What a joke,” added Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker. “I always thought that some part of McCain doesn’t want to be president, and this choice proves my point.  Welcome back, Admiral Stockdale.”

Daniel Levy of the Century Foundation noted that Obama’s “non-official campaign” would need to work hard to discredit Palin. “This seems to me like an occasion when the non-official campaign has a big role to play in defining Palin, shaping the terms of the conversation and saying things that the official [Obama] campaign shouldn’t say – very hard-hitting stuff, including some of the things that people have been noting here – scare people about having this woefully inexperienced, no foreign policy/national security/right-wing christia wing-nut a heartbeat away …… bang away at McCain’s age making this unusually significant …. I think people should be replicating some of the not-so-pleasant viral email campaigns that were used against [Obama].”

Ryan Donmoyer, a reporter for Bloomberg News who was covering the campaign, sent a quick thought that Palin’s choice not to have an abortion when she unexpectedly became pregnant at age 44 would likely boost her image because it was a heartwarming story.

“Her decision to keep the Down’s baby is going to be a hugely emotional story that appeals to a vast swath of America, I think,” Donmoyer wrote.

Politico reporter Ben Adler, now an editor at Newsweek, replied, “but doesn’t leaving sad baby without its mother while she campaigns weaken that family values argument? Or will everyone be too afraid to make that point?”

Blogger Matt Yglesias sent out a new post thread with the subject, “The line on Palin.”

“John McCain picked someone to help him politically, Barack Obama picked someone to help him govern,” Yglesias wrote.

Ed Kilgore, managing editor of the Democratic Strategist blog, argued that journalists and others trying to help the Obama campaign should focus on Palin’s beliefs. “The criticism of her really, really needs to be ideological, not just about experience.  If we concede she’s a ‘maverick,’ we will have done John McCain an enormous service.  And let’s don’t concede the claim that [Hillary Clinton] supporters are likely to be very attracted to her,” Kilgore said.

Amidst this debate over how most effectively to destroy Palin’s reputation, reporter Avi Zenilman, who was then writing about the campaign for Politico, chimed in to note that Palin had “openly backed” parts of Obama’s energy plan. In an interview Wednesday, Zenilman said he sent the information as a means of promoting a story he had written for Politico.

Chris Hayes of the Nation wrote in with words of encouragement, and to ask for more talking points. “Keep the ideas coming! Have to go on TV to talk about this in a few min and need all the help I can get,” Hayes wrote.

Suzanne Nossel, chief of operations for Human Rights Watch, added a novel take: “I think it is and can be spun as a profoundly sexist pick.  Women should feel umbrage at the idea that their votes can be attracted just by putting a woman, any woman, on the ticket no matter her qualifications or views.”

Mother Jones’s Stein loved the idea. “That’s excellent! If enough people – people on this list? – write that the pick is sexist, you’ll have the networks debating it for days. And that negates the SINGLE thing Palin brings to the ticket,” he wrote.

Another writer from Mother Jones, Nick Baumann, had this idea: “Say it with me: ‘Classic GOP Tokenism’.”

Kilgore wasn’t sold: “I STRONGLY think the immediate task is to challenge the ‘maverick’ bullshit about Palin, which everybody on the tube is echoing. I’ll say it one more time: Palin is a hard-core conservative ideologue in every measurable way.”

Zenilman of Politico, a purportedly nonpartisan journalist, weighed in with tactical advice: “The experience attack is a stupid one. It’s absolutely the wrong tack — the tack that McCain took when he was losing, and that Hillary and Biden took all primaries.” Zenilman said Wednesday he was offering “typical offhand political analysis.”

Joe Klein of Time stopped by with an update on the latest from his magazine: “We’re reporting that she actually supported the bridge to nowhere. First flub?”

Klein, who displayed an independent streak in other circumstances (“anybody who knows me knows I do my own thinking,” he said in a Wednesday interview), seemed to exude more partisanship that day than usual.

As the morning wore on into the afternoon, some on Journolist came to believe the Palin pick had been shrewd. Palin was coming off as appealing and a maverick, they worried.

“Okay, let’s get deadly serious, folks.  Grating voice or not, ‘inexperienced’ or not, Sarah Palin’s just been introduced to the country as a brave, above-party, oil-company-bashing, pork-hating maverick ‘outsider’,” Kilgore said, “What we can do is to expose her ideology.”

Ryan Avent, then blogging for the Economist and now an editor there, agreed that criticizing Palin’s experience might not work. “I really don’t think the experience argument needs to be made by the Dems. It’s completely obvious to any reasonable person. Instead, hammer away at the fact that she has terrible positions on things like choice, and on the fact that she has no ideas on the issues important to people,” he wrote.

Journolist’s founder Ezra Klein, now a blogger at the Washington Post, reached an entirely different conclusion: “I see no reason to attack Palin. I think you accurately describe Palin and attack McCain.” Klein linked to an article he had written for the American Prospect that calmly described Palin’s thin resume.

Time’s Joe Klein then linked to his own piece, parts of which he acknowledged came from strategy sessions on Journolist. “Here’s my attempt to incorporate the accumulated wisdom of this august list-serve community,” he wrote. And indeed Klein’s article contained arguments developed by his fellow Journolisters. Klein praised Palin personally, calling her “fresh” and “delightful,” but questioned her “militant” ideology. He noted Palin had endorsed parts of Obama’s energy proposal.

That was all on the day of the announcement.

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Ed. Note: This story has been updated to reflect additional information provided by those quoted.


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