In the summer of 2008, Republican Sen. John McCain was not doing so good. He had gone from front-runner status against presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton to badly trailing an obscure first-term senator from Illinois.
He threw everything in the book at the political neophyte, including a catchy yet derisive moniker - The One - which stuck for a while but soon faded. Unlike Ronald Reagan running against Walter Mondale, the 71-year-old senator did exploit, for political purposes, his 47-year-old opponent’s youth and inexperience. Still nothing.
By summer’s end, Mr. McCain was desperate, and it showed when he made a historic blunder, perhaps one of the biggest is presidential politics: He picked a completely unknown governor from Alaska, 28 years his junior. The four-term senator, who would have been the oldest man ever to take the presidency, had gone from gravitas to groveling in a single stroke.
In contrast of course, Mr. Obama had picked 65-year-old Sen. Joseph R. Biden, the six-term senator bringing the very gravitas Mr. McCain possessed. Even after a grueling nomination battle - in which Mr. Biden had described the half-white, half black senator from Illinois as “articulate and bright and clean” - Mr. Obama knew he must add a heavyweight to his ticket to have any chance.
So why did Mr. McCain pick Sarah Palin? Was he after the women’s vote, now that Mrs. Clinton had lost? Was he really so desperate that he would - with months to go in the campaign - resort to a Hail Mary? Was there no one from the slew of former foes — Mike Huckabee, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Fred Thompson … heck, even Ron Paul — who would add much more to the ticket?
Of course, there was one vice-presidential candidate just waiting for the call. His name was Willard Mitt Romney. He was a former governor of a very blue state, Massachusetts, and one heckuva handsome guy. He was also, unlike Mrs. Palin, ready to step into the presidency at a moment’s notice (and, with Mr. McCain as old as he was, that prospect was a real concern among voters).
One other thing: Mr. Romney was a master on business and the economy. He earned master’s and law degrees from Harvard. He had cut spending in his home state, turning a $1.5 billion deficit into a $700 million surplus. Before that, he had taken on an almost impossible task, saving the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, running a nearly $400 million deficit among fears that the Games would have to be scaled back. In the end, the Olympics pulled in a $100 million profit.
What’s more, Mr. McCain, one of the Senate’s great minds on foreign policy, already had a problem on that score. “The issue of economics is something that I’ve really never understood as well as I should,” he said, a quote that was played over and over, especially in news reports that sought to allay voters’ fears on Mr. Obama’s economic inexperience.
Mr. McCain’s choice proved to be disastrous just one month later, when the U.S. economy imploded. The Republican nominee had said he didn’t know much about the economy, and the running mate he chose, it could certainly be assumed, knew hardly anything about running a national economy. Mr. Romney in the No. 2 slot would have changed the entire equation, even taking the lead campaign role on the economy as Mr. McCain focused on his strength, foreign policy.
Now, four years later, Mr. Romney is the front-runner for the Republican nomination, as well he should be. Unlike all of his fellow hopefuls, the governor has gone straight at Mr. Obama, pulling no punches. And unlike the cagey Mrs. Palin - is she in, out, what? - Mr. Romney has been running for president since Nov. 5, 2008.
The telegenic Mr. Romney presents an enormous problem to Mr. Obama. With the economy still flailing - in fact, doing worse than it was when Mr. Obama took office - Mr. Romney will spend the next 18 months making the case that he best knows how to fix the economy.
Of course, a case could well be made that nothing could have stopped Mr. Obama - or altered the media’s love affair with him. His coronation was set in motion months before Mr. McCain chose Mrs. Palin, and perhaps that choice was not desperation, but a simple realization that he needed a game changer.
But either way, Mr. Romney is poised to waltz to the Republican nomination this year, and his sheer power already may well keep Mrs. Palin from joining the hunt. And funny, this time around, that Mama Grizzly hockey mom just might be the exactly right choice for vice president.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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