Posted by Brad @ 3:33 pm on February 28th 2008

You’re John McCain: What’s Your Strategy?

Now that it seems mostly certain that John McCain is going to be running against (and behind) Barack Obama, the question becomes “what case do you formulate for you above him?”

McCain, for his part, seems to be taking his lead from Hillary Clinton. And we sort of all expect his campaign to take that shape (though perhaps not this explicitly).

Andrew Sullivan wonders if that’s such a good idea, considering how Clinton herself fared with it. Of course, the difference is, McCain actually has a case to make along these lines. He really IS experienced and “ready on day one”, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, whose only experience beyond Obama’s that I can ferret, after a full year of campaigning (really, a full 8 years), is that she mercilessly botched health care reform once. McCain, on the other hand, can credibly, and almost certainly should, run on experience and commander-in-chiefness, and that strategy will probably give him a very respectable and inoffensive second place showing, ala Bob Dole in 1996 (the right is correct to use that analogy, I think, and I say that as about the world’s biggest Bob Dole fan). Events may occur (terrorist attack say) that play into that strategy, but it’s hard to see it, alone, as being a winner, particularly against Obama.

And, of course, McCain has one thing Dole never did—he is a front and center, integral player on one of the most significant issues of the day. Problem for McCain, he’s on the wrong side of it, and it’s hard for me to see how McCain puffing out his chest on it and pushing it forward big-time doesn’t work hugely to Obama’s advantage. McCain running his campaign hard on Iraq is a mental image something like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb to the ground.

Josh Marshall seems to think an integral component of the party’s strategy is for their lower surrogates to push constantly and unrepentantly the black, muslim, Communist, anti-American, Arab, hustler, etc. line, for the sake of getting it out there, and then just having McCain take a few swats at repudiating those tactics (Bill Cunningham-style) to maintain the image of taking the high road. Injecting that stuff into the campaign stream will simultaneously giving yourself plenty of Sister Souljah moments, in other words. That, I highly doubt, will be a conscious strategy on anyone’s parts—McCain is absolutely right to take those swats where they come, on their own merits—but will almost certainly be a component of how the picture comes together, I’d say.

Sully, for his part, thinks McCain needs to reinvent himself as a change agent:

I really think McCain is unwise to follow Clinton’s strategy against Obama. It looks like he’ll argue that he has more experience and more readiness. Those themes will only reinforce the narrative of age and youth, a narrative that helps Obama. In my view, McCain can only win this campaign if he adopts Obama’s message. McCain has to become the change candidate. He needs to offer a radical program to bring the war in Iraq to a close, foment energy innovation, offer a market-driven healthcare plan that expands choice and access, simplify taxes, obliterate pork, secure the border and reform entitlements.

This is a change election. As the economy sours even further, it will become even more so. Running as the whiter, older, more experienced candidate is a recipe for failure. And McCain has the capacity to present himself as a change agent – starting with the GOP.

Problem is, he’s spent the last six years running mostly AWAY from that position—right up until a month or so ago. And again, if you have two change agents, one John McCain the other Barack Obama, the contrast is pretty stark, and does not work to John McCain’s advantage that I can see (unless you’re principally interested in the GOP vs. the country as a whole, but hard to see that being a huge swing bloc in McCain’s favor (could be one in Obama’s)).

One final disadvantage for McCain is we, around here, are generally favorable to some of his speech and debate moments off and on, but on the whole, McCain isn’t all that compelling a speaker and can be positively disastrous a debater. He has shown much less, in that arena, than Hillary Clinton, who has actually conducted herself pretty damn well against Obama (compare McCain’s performance in the last debate with Hillary’s; it’s not even close). And matched up against Obama, it may elevate McCain’s game somewhat, but it also becomes, again, about contrasts. In many ways, McCain is an even better rhetorical opponent for Obama than Clinton has been. And I add in this point about rhetoric to say that, whatever tack McCain takes, he’s not going to be up with an advantage in his ability to execute it.

McCain is not starting out from so terrible a place in the general election. And there are certainly holes in Obama’s record and person that you could drive a truck through (and, I think Obama-backlash is going to start kicking in at some point; to what extent I don’t know, but as the Messianic theme begins to become a crushing Tsunami, a lot of the coast is going to shrink back and roll their eyes more). But when considering what competing narratives he can offer against Obama, you can find bits and pieces of stuff that will have effect, and a kind of ready-made structure in place (“I am experienced bzzt beep”) but none that I can see that will create anything but a stale, respectable, but still losing counter-voice.

We opened up the question of Hillary Clinton’s strategy last time (mostly from an electoral perspective). I wonder what you folks think, from a perspective of rhetoric and narrative, McCain’s best bet is?


  1. I would think he needs to cultivate his (almost entirely unearned, IMO) image as a maverick.

    He should pretend that he is a moderate and push the angle that Obama is “the most liberal” member of the senate.

    He should talk about Irag (and Iran) as little as possible, but when forced to speak about it, take the position that he, too, wants to get out but that he wants to win first (and that we are likely to win, like, really soon), unlike the coward Obama, who hates America and wants to surrender and give comfort to the enemy (oh, and who also hates our troops).

    He should claim that he wants a balanced budget, but continue to promise no new taxes and should not mention any spending cuts.

    As the entry above notes, he should have his minions push as much racially motivated stuff into the aether (as it seems this can only help him), but keep himself distanced.

    He should probably move back to the pro-immigration side of things, since the unions aren’t going to support him anyway, and the Republicans fall in line.

    He should avoid making any jokes again, ever, as he has negative charisma (or should I be evaluating that on a 3-18 scale?) and it makes everyone like him less as he always comes across looking like a jerk.

    He should stop saying, “my friends,” since I can’t stand him and want someone to punch him in the neck everytime he says it.

    Comment by Redland Jack — 2/28/2008 @ 3:49 pm

  2. He should probably move back to the pro-immigration side of things, since the unions arenít going to support him anyway, and the Republicans fall in line.

    Also, there’s a lot of hope in GOP strategist circles that, one upside of McCain’s immigration stance is it keeps him very competitive with Hispanics, which mitigates some of the Dems play for the Southwest and Mountain West. It’s actually one of McCain’s most interesting advantages (relative to all other potential GOP contenders).

    Excellent point; I forgot to mention it. But there too, of course, there are a lot of conservative base members who could easily be convinced to stay home on election day if McCain runs as Mr. Hispanic Immigrant Enabler.

    But he’s be doing his party a favor in the long term if he did push forward with that, and probably short term as well for that matter.

    Comment by Brad — 2/28/2008 @ 3:56 pm

  3. I’ve actually been preparing a McCain speech for the Republican convention that lays out an explicit strategy.

    For now, I’ll merely say that I don’t think that the “experienced” and “change” memes are in any way contradictory; and that, as always, success in politics does not depend exclusively on which issues you pick, but also on how you frame them.

    I also think there are very, very substantial opportunities to undercut Obama on his own themes–opportunities that Clinton deprived herself of.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/28/2008 @ 4:05 pm

  4. I think he should call Obama on the carpet about two things: First (and not to sound like a broken record), he should demand of Mr. Obama what no one else has, at least no one in the MSM; “where’s the money come from?”

    Second, he should inject a dose of reality into the Iraq debate and challenge Obama to spell out exactly what his withdrawal policy will be.

    As an side, was I the only one stunned during the Ohio HRC vs BHO debate when both answered that they would be prepared to send troops back to Iraq to quell any chaos or enhanced al Qeada activity that resulted from withdrawing our troops in the near term? It blew my mind.

    Comment by James — 2/28/2008 @ 4:52 pm

  5. Oh yeah, and stop saying “my friends”, John.

    Comment by James — 2/28/2008 @ 4:54 pm

  6. No; I think any responsible commander in chief would have to give that answer to the question they were asked in the last debate. And it all comes down to interpretation (do you mean the current “Al Queda in Iraq” franchise, or do you mean more akin to what happened in Afghanastan in the late 90s, which is how I would take the question).

    On the “my friends”, at this point I think it’s gone from cringe-worthy to being camp. He may as well keep it.

    Comment by Brad — 2/28/2008 @ 4:57 pm

  7. Nice to have you disagree with me again. I so much prefer knowing for sure that I am right.

    Comment by James — 2/28/2008 @ 5:13 pm

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