The McCain Strategy For 2008
If Rove can do it, so can I.
John McCain was considered a long shot for many reasons, however the most important was that he was not considered to appeal to the Republican base as well as a strong social conservatives like Huck or fiscal conservatives like Romney. In a season were pundits thought Iraq would be THE major issue, McCain’s 60’s style hawkishness tempered and strengthened by his POW status, was thought a weakness. However, his competition turned out to be, if not paper tigers, poor campaigners, and they fell off, leaving the war hero to surge midway.
Consequently, McCain never had to work as hard as most thought to convince conservatives he’s one of them. He’s been able to play the moderate for a long time given the date at which his competition checked out.
Now you have McCain playing the statesman-straight talker role to the hilt, unafraid to traverse where mere conservatives fear to tread, like talking to Essence magazine (what’s next, Oprah?) and name checking his Black friends and assuring us he would go to the NAACP convention.
He’s sure to follow this track all the way to November, speaking to the issues as a soft-right Republican, staying above the fray. His ads are sure to include a lot of American flags and support for Santa Claus type issues (tax cuts) and moderate conservative pet projects that tend to test well with independent voters (charter schools, less dependence on fossil fuels, stopping pork barrel projects, reducing the size of government). His ideas that are big government dependent, like acting to combat the mortgage crunch through the HOME loan plan, are hypocritical, but potentially popular enough to appeal to the housing industry lobbyists.
He will leave the nastiness to the Republican National Committee and any other Swift boaters who want to pile on. It will be, as we’ve seen already, the job of the national and state parties to put up comical ads on youtube and paint a foreboding picture of Sen. Obama. The GOP effort to define Obama in the minds of the public is well underway. They are going to air ads that argue Obama is an insincere (he says one thing but 10 years ago he said something entirely different!!), indifferent (elitist!) and ineffectual tax and spend liberal wuss who would rather talk than fight. Plus he hates White America.
The GOP are trying to sort out how they are going to take advantage of the racial divide, they just don’t have a handle on it. The test runs have either backfired (Hobbs, North Carolina) or failed miserably (Mississippi). McCain’s tactic of making platitudes of not giving up on votes from the African-American community is of course part of a plan to immunize himself from being linked to any racial nastiness that pops up. Oh, yes, he is probably sincere in his overtures, however he isn’t dumb enough to think he’s going to peel away any support from Obama.
An aside: the paragraphs above illustrate a couple of reasons why it will be more difficult to run against Obama than it would have been against Sen. Clinton. She’s a well known public figure, and given the perception of her as a classic liberal, painting her as such would be a snap. Sure, McCain would have to tread just as carefully around issues of sex as he will around issues regarding race, but the GOP wouldn’t have to spend as much energy on defining her as a candidate, they’d just go to the archives.
The biggest problem for both McCain and the RNC will be money. Obama’s pockets are fat and considering the paucity of McCain’s war chest, Obama will have the largesse to donate a few dollars to down ticket races. If the DNC are able to pick up on Obama’s fund raising techniques, they will have enough to fully execute Dr. Dean’s 50 state strategy starting this summer. McCain won’t be able to compete on television which will present a real challenge. If Obama can afford 10 ads to the RNC’s 1, who will be better able to define whom?
To wage a low cost, ground level campaign, McCain and the GOP are going to have to rely heavily on free media. This means public appearances and speeches in big media markets. This means going on Fox and Limbaugh and the Today Show often. This means allowing the attack dog class free reign, even though he disavows their “divisive” politics later. I don’t think McCain will have to worry too much about the backwash from the RNC’s nasty drink. The pundit class is generally favorable towards him, and likely only Olbermann is going to really take him to task.
McCain will be playing against a Democrat at his home stadium; poor economic times, in the middle of a war most of the country is against and when the word “Republican” polls poorly. A Democrat with mad campaign skills and finely tuned machinery would walk away with it.
However, the country leans socially conservative, and the social divisions are bitter and contentious; gay marriage, abortion rights, Affirmative Action, and how to improve education are issues on the table and we are mostly split, or at least large groups of the population feel strongly about these issues. As Nixon proved, and Bush II proved, Republicans can exploit those divisions for their advantage.
With Obama, it’s a little different. He’s taken the mantle of the Unifier. He will end the divisions, bring us together and make nice homes for all our kittens. When times are tough and people are at each other’s throats, the leader who is successful is the leader who can convince others he can build that bridge and cross it. If McCain attacks, he will be the divider, not the uniter. Considering his stilted style and mild affect, you must doubt his ability to present himself as the Other Unifier.
If it sounds like a bleak picture for McCain, it isn’t. Even though most people are extremely dissatisfied with the current administration, there are enough people who haven’t completely abandoned conservatism, who cling to their guns and gods, and don’t mind voting Republican. He’s behind in most national polls . . . all national polls . . . but remember 2000? He doesn’t have to win the popular vote. People like Ambinder are already projecting the state by state races, and he’s already calling it for McCain in the Electoral College.
Ambinder’s math is of course premature. Despite all the coverage of the Democrats this cycle, I’m sure there are a great many who are not tuned in and have not made their decisions, have not been subject to what is sure to be an avalanche of paid TV ads in their home.