08 November 2008

On the McCain campaign, Part I

In the wake of Sen. McCain's defeat, I've struggled to apportion blame among the various actors, and to decide where I think the sure-to-be-reformed GOP should be headed. I'll take on the GOP on a different day -- there is much sorting out and soul-searching to do. But what of McCain's campaign?

One thing must be made clear: From early July until the selection of Gov. Palin as McCain's #2, the McCain campaign was nearly flawless. Steve Schmidt -- the Bush/Cheney '04 communications guru, and Team Maverick's chief strategist who formally took the reins in late June '08 -- was fighting an uphill battle from the start, and the fact that the McCain campaign kept their candidate within the margin of error, and even at times ahead, of their opponent was impressive. But the country obviously was tired of the Republican Party, thanks in large part to the incompetence of the Bush administration, and Sen. Obama found himself with a perfect storm at his back.

The playing field was tilted from day one, no matter who the Democratic nominee was. I believe Sen. Clinton would have won by an even bigger margin than did Obama. So McCain's team was forced to, at times, take an outside-the-box approach.

As a result, they clearly did not run a perfect campaign -- far from it. From early September to the finish line, I was bitterly disappointed in Schmidt's operation.

Also, to all you conservatives: Let's live in reality and not expect that every post-mortem account of the McCain campaign is being exaggerated by liberal media elites. Media bias pervades everything from Joe Klein columns to the "all-star panel" on FOX News. That's precisely why you get your news from more than one source. Newsweek recently ran a fascinating seven-part series on the McCain and Obama operations, as the mag's embedded reporters enjoyed virtually unbridled access to the two campaigns (as well as that of Sen. Clinton) for over a year. While you might think that each one of these reporters has an axe to grind, please remember that the election is over. 

What have the last eight years taught us? That Republicans can and do make mistakes. Sometimes big ones.

So where exactly did McCain's campaign -- and Steve Schmidt, in particular -- fall short?

First, the McCain team never settled on a narrative or a message to drive until it was far too late. Footsoldier in the Reagan Revolution? Experience? Change? Country first? Which one was it? For 18 months, Obama ran on "change we can believe in." Truth be told, campaign slogans mean nothing to me, and I believe Obama's obsessive fixation with platitudes was a clear effort to dress up his extremist record. (The record and the left-wing platform are there, folks -- he just didn't run on them.) But they exist to drive the campaign's narrative and to reach undecided voters. 

So what was McCain's message? Robert Draper wrote a fascinating account of Team Maverick's meandering ways that appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of the New York Times Magazine. It wasn't meant to be critical of McCain -- Draper was complementary toward the candidate and told the story of the McCain team attempting to recast the Senior Senator upon the happenings of major events along the way -- Obama's trip to Europe, the selection of Gov. Palin, the onset of the Wall Street meltdown, and so on. Each time, the campaign's narrative changed. Obama's stayed the same. 

I've mentioned this in a prior post, but it's worth repeating: David Brooks (a longtime McCain admirer) pointed out that Sen. Obama's operation was very much about the whole being more than simply the sum of the parts -- that is, while Obama's concrete policy proposals might be mentioned here and there, Team Hope ran a "change" movement. The Hopemonger seized upon an electoral discontent, simultaneously reached out to disaffected voters, and drove a consistent narrative for 18 months. Every single response or press conference was couched within this overarching message. It was truly a brilliantly executed campaign. 

Second, McCain's economic message (which clearly differs from the overall narrative of his campaign) was just awful. At the first debate -- during which the economic crisis dominated the first 40 minutes -- the candidate focused on earmark abuse, out-of-control spending, and stump-speech catchphrases like the DNA of bears in Montana or the Woodstock museum. No one disputes that pork-barrel earmarks and irresponsible spending are problems. But McCain's tepid, almost dismissive response to the Wall Street meltdown was highly damaging. During the second debate, Sen. McCain went the other way, taking a page from the John Edwards playbook, proposing that the Treasury Secretary buy up bad mortgages and renegotiate them. It was perhaps merely a coincidence, but Team Maverick chose to begin hitting Obama on Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko during this time. And what kind of message is that supposed to send to voters? That John McCain is more interested in negative personal attacks than solving the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Because that's exactly what swing voters heard.

What was most disappointing about McCain's directionless message during this time was that Sen. Obama was even less ready than McCain to handle the meltdown. The idea that Obama is prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude because he "ran" a presidential campaign for the better part of two years is beyond laughable. (I'm qualified to deal with this crisis because, well, I'm Barack Obama!) By that logic, any CEO of a company with more than a couple hundred employees is qualified to be the leader of the free world. 


Anonymous said...

Enough of the excuses already! Sure, the GOP had an up-hill battle, but how about a detailed post on that "brilliant" campaign that Sen. Obama ran (perhaps this blog should be re-named "The GOP Rules")? All of those alleged "vagaries" and "platitudes" obviously meant something to the masses as Obama absolutely crushed Sen. McCain in electoral votes. Nowhere near 350? Really? What's "laughable" was your bold (or was it biased?) prediction that McCain had a legitimate chance on Tuesday. The old man needed a miracle and from the looks of it, you were willing to play God. Everything I read in the weeks and months leading up to Tuesday depicted Obama with a commanding lead. Needless to say, I do commend your loyalty to the angry grandpa. I know you love the guy, but he didn't stand a chance. It sounds like you're starting to figure out why.

On a related note, what troubles me most is that if McCain (and his appointees) couldn't run a successful campaign, what makes you think he could run a successful country? If McCain couldn't surround himself with the right people for a presidential campaign, who's to say he'd suddenly surround himself with the right people in the White House? Obama on the other hand, ran a flawless campaign. That's not to say he'll run a flawless administration by any means, but you can't deny the guy's charisma and his ability to restore, even if temporarily, the hope of the American people. His acceptance speech on Tuesday evening gave me chills and I can't help but look to tomorrow with an optimistic eye!

TomL. said...

There really is no need to go into a post mortem on why McCain lost: Bush’s unpopularity, the war in Iraq, the economic crisis, etc. Name the last moderate or liberal Republican to be elected president. To make life a little easier, let’s just consider the Republicans who were elected president since World War II: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

At the time, Eisenhower was considered a conservative; no question about Nixon or Reagan being conservative; George H. W. Bush was elected as a conservative successor to Reagan then moved to the center and lost in his re-election bid; George W. Bush is certainly considered a conservative, although I believe he is responsible for killing the “Reagan Revolution”.

So, it would seem in the last 56 years, for a Republican to be elected president he had to be viewed as conservative. But, being conservative and being a conservative Republican are not synonymous.

fore more see: http://lazarusreport.blogtownhall.com/

The Commissioner said...

To the first poster: I'd hardly call a post detailing the McCain team's errors -- and McCain himself is to blame in this, too -- "excuses." These certainly aren't excuses. "Excuses" are things like, "My car broke down."

McCain obviously was the only Republican to stand a chance. Check the poll data from early and mid-September. It was only after his poor response to the financial crisis that his poll numbers dipped considerably, never to return. I think you're looking for a fight -- I agree that the well-executed Obama campaign forced McCain to be flawless. Maybe I will take that up in a future post, because it was arguably the best-executed presidential campaign of my lifetime. The Newsweek expose' illustrated just how remarkable it was.

Vagueries and platitudes, such as "change" and "hope" and "yes we can" -- as well as a compelling narrative -- clearly did mean something to the chattering classes. Many voters my age -- who either hadn't voted before or who knew very little about any candidate in an election beforehand -- decided they had enough, bought into Obama's message, and given the historic turnout, that among other things fell squarely in Obama's favor.

Finally, convincing people to vote for you and governing effectively are two completely different things. Just ask Jimmy Carter or President Bush.

And to the second: In a time when 80% of the electorate thinks the country is going in the wrong direction, the fact that McCain got 46% of the vote is remarkable. He was the only GOP'er that stood a chance precisely because of his independent streak. I will have a post on the future of the GOP in the near future. But needless to say, especially given the bent of this site, I don't view the GOP as a small-tent party.