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Why Troopergate matters

Karl Smyth
11 October 2008

The continued salience of the financial market meltdown may mean that the intensity of the media's spotlight will not burn quite as bright, or be as probing, as in previous weeks; nor does the nature of the crime appear sufficiently severe to force John McCain to make a potentially disastrous last-minute change to the Republican presidential ticket. However, there is no doubt that the findings yesterday of the Alaskan legislature into the 'Troopergate' affair hold pronounced political repercussions that will stretch far beyond the boundaries of the Land of the Midnight Sun - and which may ultimately serve as the final death-knell of a presidential campaign that in recent days has looked increasingly frustrated and bereft of ideas.

The damage the Troopergate report has already done to the Republican presidential bid and will prove to do in the days to come is multi-faceted: first, since her unveiling as the Republican vice presidential nominee, one of the central strategies of the McCain camp in assuaging concerns over Palin's obvious inexperience has been to portray her as a Washington outsider who would repeat the same sweeping, take-no-prisoners style of executive reform she achieved during her time as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska.

That the Republicans have struggled to elaborate how Palin would "bring change to Washington" has proven largely inconsequential: as the success of Barack Obama's campaign illustrated so vividly in the primaries, such a message holds strong resonance with an electorate that has bestowed upon the current Congress the worst right track/wrong track poll ratings in American history. However, now tainted with the charge of impropriety, the McCain-Palin ticket has had the credibility of this proposition seriously undermined, and now faces an uphill struggle in selling the Alaskan native as the implacable and unyielding purifying force that the American bureaucracy badly needs to purge it of its excesses.

Moreover, while the campaign has been eager to highlight some of Palin's accomplishments in executive office (reigning in budgetary deficits, energy legislation) and exaggerate others (foreign policy experience), the most thorough investigation into the inner-workings of a Palin administration has produced a portrait of an executive characterized by Time's Michael Scherer as "shockingly amateurish" in its conduct throughout the affair. It raises serious questions about the Alaskan's ability to effectively manage her own executive, let alone the highest in the land.

In dealing with the report's fallout, the campaign's media strategy and message (something which the McCain camp has struggled with throughout the election) also faces some serious adjustments being made to its tone in the coming days - invariably at the expense of its coherence. As detailed in previous articles by Kanishk Tharoor and Thomas Ash on this very site, the GOP has been desperate this past week to steer the discourse of the campaign away from the economic issues of the day and towards the question of Obama's character, channelling distant ghosts from the Democrat's past such as the Weather Underground and Chicago developer Tony Rezko into vociferous attack ads and stump speeches.

However, having handed the Obama campaign the fillip of material equal in magnitude if not greater with which to respond in kind, and possessing a war chest far inferior to their Democratic opponents, the Republican camp must now consider changing tact immediately, toning down the negativity of their message while engaging more thoroughly on economic issues - lest they provoke a media blitz from which there will only be one winner.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while Palin's selection has been widely heralded for shoring up a large segment of the Republican base which McCain has always struggled to appease, it was taken at the cost of alienating many independent voters, who are as likely to be alienated as they are charmed by the Alaskan's folksy mannerisms and extreme positions on social issues such as abortion rights, capital punishment and gun control. While Palin's frequent missteps in subsequent media interviews these past weeks has made the process of getting this vital segment of the electorate to buy into the prospect of her being "one heartbeat away" all the more difficult, the stigma of corruption and mismanagement that comes with this latest charge may prove a bridge too far for many of those observing the cut-and-thrust of electoral politics from the sidelines - or, perhaps more fittingly, a Bridge to Nowhere.

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