The McCain folks have been hoping for weeks that a hot news story would come along and shift public attention away from the tanking economy. Well, they finally got their wish last night.
And yet, doggone it, be careful what you wish for.
We knew already (as I detailed in this space yesterday) that John McCain's Faustian pact with the Republican attack machine has seriously damaged his so-called "maverick" brand, perhaps beyond repair. And now, thanks to the news last night, we have solid proof that the so-called "maverick" vice presidential nominee is really just another garden-variety politician who violates the public trust for personal gain.
It had long been clear that the official Alaska probe into the circumstances surrounding Sarah Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner would likely embarrass the McCain campaign. The real mystery is why McCain tapped her for the ticket despite the gathering storm clouds, and we'll return to that shortly. Suffice it to say that, in McCain's present circumstances, the last thing he needed was for the public to link the words "Palin" and "abuse of power" in the same sentence. But such is the reality this morning.
A bipartisan legislative panel unanimously launched the probe, and the bipartisan panel voted unanimously yesterday to release the findings. The report concludes that Gov. Palin violated the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act when she and her husband, the First Dude, repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to pressure the state public safety commissioner into firing a trooper who had gone through a difficult divorce with Palin's sister. In the report's words, "Such impermissible and repeated contacts create conflicts of interests for subordinate employees, who must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and the possible consequences of that displeasure...(Palin) knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda."
The state ethics law declares that "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust." The report, having determined that the governor and her husband maintained a personal interest in getting the trooper fired, therefore concluded: "Governor Sarah Palin abused her power."
The public safety commissioner, Walter Monegan, ultimately resisted three dozen entreaties from the Palin camp. The governor then fired Monegan in July. The Alaska report does not conclude that Monegan was fired only because of his stance on the trooper dispute; it does conclude that his stance was a "substantial factor." In Alaska, a governor can legally fire a top subordinate without giving a reason - and, since Palin refused to be interviewed by investigators, the report does not solve the mystery. It's worth noting, however, that Palin's office in recent weeks has offered various shifting rationales for Monegan's departure, including the claim that he was canned because he took several unathorized trips to Washington - a claim that was reportedly exposed as a lie, when it became clear that the trips in question actually had been authorized in advance...by Palin's office.
Anyway, the flailing McCain campaign responded last night by denouncing the probe as a partisan hit by Obama supporters, but that's predictable stuff, the usual defensive crouch, and quite reminiscent of how the Bush administration has long responded when any outside authorities have attempted to exercise oversight. Indeed, Palin's behavior over the past few months has been right out of the Bush administration playbook - from her initial promises to cooperate ("We would never prohibit, or be less than enthusiastic about, any kind of investigation," she said during the summer, "let's deal in the facts") to her subsequent breach of promise and refusal to cooperate.
In the '08 race, Palin had already attained the status of heavy baggage - the latest Fox News poll reports that, thanks to her presence, 40 percent of independent voters are less likely to support McCain, whereas only 28 percent are more likely - so, in a sense, the report out of Alaska can't burden her much more. After all, most people have already concluded that she has no business running for higher office; as the latest Newsweek poll reports, 55 percent of Americans find her unqualified for the presidency - and that's 16 points higher than the summer '88 thumbs-down verdict on Dan Quayle.
But the "abuse of power" verdict may well help strip away the last vestiges of her "maverick" image. It also may prompt more Americans to marvel at the vagaries of the McCain vetting process - and to wonder whether a presidential candidate who makes such a farcical choice is indeed ready to govern a nation in crisis on day one.