Sunday, June 22, 2008

McCain: It Is What It Is

This stage of the John McCain campaign is taking shape in interesting ways. Here are some key themes.

McCain: The Gimmicks. Taking the initiative is important in any contest whether it's sports, war, or politics. John McCain has been able to seize the initiative in not insignificant ways. First, he made news by challenging Barack Obama to travel to Iraq with him and set up a little countdown of the number of days since Obama has visited Iraq. McCain then made a little more news by challenging Obama to hold a series of ten weekly town hall meetings. It's all kind of gimmicky, but McCain is forcing Obama to respond to him rather than attack.

Expect more such gimmicks in the future.

McCain: The Schizophrenia. Republican insiders have been complaining to the media about McCain's inability to settle on a particular theme. Last week, McCain trumpeted that he had stood up to George Bush on global warming one day, then went out and called for more off-shore drilling the next. It looked particularly bad to insiders that Bush then rushed out to endorse McCain's drilling ideas.
"I'm baffled that the McCain guys have somehow managed to take a guy who practically had 'reform' tattooed to his forehead and turned him into the bastion of the status quo," said one Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The conflicting themes sound like political schizophrenia, but we'll probably be seeing a lot of this from the McCain campaign. Because Bush, Republicans, and conservatism are unpopular, McCain needs to convince voters an independent maverick willing to stand up to to Bush. But it's just as important for McCain to attack Obama as well. Given that McCain is hardly going to attack Obama from the left, he needs to push standard conservative views on the few issues where such views might be popular. Given $4.00 gas, there's a decent chance that McCain might be able to score some points by calling for more drilling. So he has to go for it.

This might sound inconsistent. It might sound schizophrenic, and it might sound like the kind of unprincipled flip-flopping that killed John Kerry.

But the McCain campaign needs to be brazenly inconsistent if McCain hopes to win. It all might sound schizophrenic, but "it is what it is."

McCain: The Man. Actually, the McCain campaign is pursuing the consistent theme that John McCain is a highly principled man and proven leader who will do what's right whatever other people think. To promote this image of McCain the Man, the McCain campaign relies heavily on McCain's image as a war hero, his reputation for having defied George Bush in 2000, and his affinity for Gen. Petraeus. It helps McCain that the mainstream media buys into this view and portrays McCain as a principled man who will be a strong leader in office even if he has to contradict himself and pander to get elected. Call it "principles pandering."

McCain: The Danger. But this is where McCain's gimmicks and schizoid inconsistency might wreck his campaign altogether. McCain's campaign is doomed if his pandering backfires in a way that sticks in the public imagination as their image of McCain the man.

This is essentially what happened to Rudy Giuliani. After months of dodging bullets on his arrogance and corrupt associations, Giuliani's front-running campaign fell completely apart when it was revealed that New York City police had provided security for his mistress. After that, it was impossible for opponents, the media, voters, or anyone else to take Giuliani seriously.

The same thing could easily happen to John McCain if he's not careful with strategies that are ultimately pretty risky.

No comments: