What is fascinating to us about this whole Sarah Palin situation is not the media and the Obama camp's reaction to her nomination. It's the Republicans' reaction to that reaction. See, soon after the initial surprise over McCain's V.P. choice wore off, the media and the Obama campaign went to work. Journalists asked questions, and Obama surrogates began poking holes in her qualifications, as you'd expect. But when the coverage of Palin quickly skewed away from the story line the McCain campaign had found so attractive in the oddball, outsider candidate — She's a reformist! She eats mooseburgers! She has … a family! — the McCain campaign quickly resorted to ad hominem attacks on those who bring up plotlines outside of their preferred narrative.
Let's walk through this: Palin's family is an integral part of her "story" — the Iraq-bound son, the decision to keep the baby with Down Syndrome — but when the media reported that 17-year-old Bristol Palin was pregnant, it was accused of violating a private family matter. Palin's tenure as the head of Alaska's National Guard was propped up as part of her national security experience, but when Campbell Brown pestered McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds to come up with one decision Palin made in that role (he couldn't), the McCain campaign canceled an appearance with Larry King and told CNN the Brown interview was "over the line." When the Obama campaign criticized Palin's lack of experience, Carly Fiorina warned them that "sexist treatment" wouldn't be tolerated by "American women." And when reports trickled from liberal blogs into the mainstream media that Palin and her husband had connections to a secession-minded Alaskan political party, the McCain campaign accused "supporters of Barack Obama" of "an unfortunate and nasty smear campaign." In other words, the McCain campaign springs a complete unknown onto the national stage and then asks the media not to vet her any more thoroughly than the campaign did itself.
John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt chose Howard Kurtz as a representative of all media, and unloaded all of his frustrations on the columnist. He claimed that the "liberal" media was "on a mission to destroy" Palin with an unprecedented "level of viciousness and scurrilousness." Schmidt shocked Kurtz with his outrage. But when the writer pressed him, it turns out that a lot of his anger was over questions that reporters had asked, not things they had published. Schmidt was apoplectic over calls that were made regarding the parentage of Trig Palin, in particular. In an interview with Katie Couric, Schmidt said:
Members of this campaign went to off-the-record lunches with reporters today, and they were asked if she would do paternity tests to prove paternity for her last child. Smear after smear after smear, and it's disgraceful and it's wrong. And the American people are going to reject it overwhelmingly when they see her.
But the mainstream media has not published anything (that we have seen) about Palin taking a paternity test. This idea was introduced to the national conversation by Schmidt himself. So, basically, Schmidt is outraged by journalists doing their jobs — asking questions, no matter how outrageous or offensive, and publishing only things that have merit. (As Kurtz pointed out, how absurd would it have seemed in 2007 to ask about Eliot Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution ring?)
Likewise, it's the Obama campaign's job to criticize Palin's experience and qualifications. And yet the McCain camp is reacting to both outcomes with mock shock and outrage. We're not sure this is an indication that they were completely unprepared for the backlash when they chose Palin as a running mate. It's just as likely that this was a response they planned all along, to hamstring the media in the face of its core supporters.
But this inadvertently puts more pressure on Palin's speech tonight. As they berate the media and Obama campaign for asking too many questions, they will need to provide some answers of their own. So far we've only heard her speak a couple of times, using the same stump speech. Tonight is our first chance to get new information from her, and hopefully it will be followed by a lot more availability. If not, the strategy of attacking anyone who makes a criticism or raises a question is going to start legitimizing those exact questions and criticisms — and fast.