It's hard to say anything about Sarah Palin that doesn't become immediately outdated by new revelations, especially if you're trying to stick to politics and stay out of family gossip. But what I feel I can say something about is what the choice of Palin says about John McCain. This remains the biggest conundrum of the whole situation: Why her? And it's a particularly entertaining subject, because there are so many possible answers, and we each get to choose one (or more) based on how we see McCain. She's like a Rorschach test.
One thing that does seem pretty clear: McCain wanted Joe Lieberman, but as decision time neared, the "social conservatives" in the party, the Evangelical right wing, dumped so much invective on the very idea that he might choose a pro-choice, somewhat-socially-progressive candidate like himself, that he began to fear a massive and embarrassing revolt on the convention floor. They were following what someone has called the "iron law of institutions": people who have gained power in an institution become more invested in maintaining their power within the institution than in the power of the institution as a whole. In other words, the Christian right would rather demonstrate its power to pick the Republican vice-presidential nominee than get the Republicans elected in November. So McCain resigned himself to choosing an anti-abortion, conservative Christian running mate.
There are many reasons to see his choice of Palin in terms of election pandering, but when he finally made his decision, I believe that he wasn't thinking about the election, he was thinking about his reputation. By the day of the Democratic convention, I believe he was just about positive that he couldn't win this election. And this is why:
For weeks, the press had been talking about the polls narrowing, but the poll wonks noticed something that McCain's people were surely well aware of: McCain's numbers never went up. A typical poll might show a 49%-43% Obama lead (with 8% undecided) shrink to a 43%-43% tie (14% undecided), and the press would announce, "McCain Pulls Even." All that was happening, in fact, was that a lot of people who were inclined to vote for Obama pulled back--during the period he was easing off his campaign, while Republican hits were going unanswered, while the threat of a Clinton revolt at the convention was being talked about--to "I think I'll wait and watch a little longer." No one was switching to McCain. The GOP's two slim hopes, I think, were that the Clintons or their supporters would do something to divide the party, and that the Democrats would return to John Kerry's disastrous "high road" and not hit back. Neither happened, and I'm guessing that the campaign's internal polls and focus groups were showing that Obama was reassuring most of his "wait and see" voters.
Of course McCain must still have had some hope of winning, and I'm sure he will right until the night of November 4th. But I think it's very likely that he stopping asking just, "How do I win this?" and began to ask, "How will people remember me in defeat?" He did not want the lasting impression of his final political campaign to be John McCain the party hack, standing next to Mitt Romney with a forced grin on his face. He wanted to go down as John McCain the maverick, the gambler, the jet jockey, the trouble maker, the unclassifiable original. He saw a chance to do that with a shocker of a vice presidential pick, and in Sarah Palin, or at least her reputation, he saw a younger version of himself.
Unfortunately, the gesture may not work out as McCain hoped. If the story continues as it has, Palin will look less like a young McCain and more like just another soldier of the Christian right, a reaffirmation of the power of the Bush-Cheney-Rove wing of the party. And McCain will look less bold than reckless, less self-directed than vain, less independent than afraid.