Friday, July 25, 2008

'The McCain contraption'

Allah coined this term and Karl at Protein Wisdom picks it up -- in contrast to the supposedly infallible "Obama machine" -- as a metaphor for the heretofore weak and inconsistent operation at Team McCain, especially in terms of "message." This bears some discussion.

First, I think the more aggressive approach since Steve Schmidt came aboard is both (a) long overdue, and (b) arguably working. To try to judge the success of the McCain campaign in the midst of this week's worldwide media Obamagasm is rather unfair. But with Schmidt in charge, McCain has gone on the attack and stayed on the attack (even though attack politics is not the candidate's preference or forte), and you saw an impact this week: Obama was badgered by Katie Couric (!) about whether or not he believes the surge has been succcessful. When Obama is forced to confront his opponent's message this way, that's success.

Second, it's a tall order to turn chicken manure into chicken salad. John McCain is not any campaign consultant's ideal candidate. He's old, short, bald and grumpy -- Bob Dole with less hair. He has never been a magnetic orator, and advanced age has not improved his stump performance.

Furthermore (and this is generally overlooked), McCain's never been in a competitive general election against a strong liberal Democratic opponent. Arizona has been a Republican state for decades, and once McCain won the 1986 GOP primary for Barry Goldwater's seat, he's never faced a serious challenge. He simply is not experienced at the kind of political warfare George W. Bush had to wage in order to defeat "Ma" Richards and the Texas Democrats.

Given the inherent shortcomings of the candidate, it is unfair to blame the problems of the McCain campaign on his staff. This isn't like the problems Ronald Reagan had with his team in 1980, where the basic solution was to "let Reagan be Reagan." Reagan had immense natural gifts as a politician that he had honed during his decades on the "mashed potato circuit." So when things started going sideways in 1980, the fix was both obvious and easy -- get out of the way and let the Gipper work his magic.

Team McCain has no such quick fix available, although arguably they might benefit by trying to inject into the current campaign some of the "fun factor" that McCain enjoyed during his 2000 run. Occasionally give the candidate a chance to do what he enjoys best -- informal bull sessions with reporters -- even if it means less time for staged campaign events.

Third, the "enthusiasm gap" is real and it's hurting. To some extent, this can't be helped. Maverick's 10-year jihad against his own party's conservative base makes it impossible for some Republicans to care whether he gets elected or not. Beyond that, the McCain campaign is on the losing end of what I call a "reverse bandwagon effect" -- the belief in Obama's invincibility (which is widespread even among Republicans) makes people unwilling to support what they perceive to be a losing effort.

There are ways for an underdog to turn the bandwagon effect around (ask Casey Cagle's campaign how they beat Ralph Reed in 2006), but unless the McCain campaign can find a way to shake conservatives out of their doom-and-gloom mood, the negativity coming from inside the Republican Party will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It may be that the problems of "the McCain contraption" are irreparable, and that all this blogospheric second-guessing is just a waste of bandwidth. Frankly, I have a professional disdain for journalists who play the amateur strategist game of offering unsolicited advice to politicians. (Yes, I mean you, Ramesh and Rich.) It's like a sports columnist telling a baseball coach which reliever he should bring in from the bullpen. If you're such a freaking strategic genius that you feel justified giving advice to professional political operatives, quit your magazine job and start your own consulting firm.

Insofar as I'm qualified to kibbitz, I will say that the mysteriously canceled "media availability" Wednesday in Wilkes-Barre was a blunder. When you promise reporters a press conference, you'd better damn well give 'em a press conference. I drove three hours to be there, only to be told on arrival that the press conference had been cancelled. This is not good media relations.

Nobody's paying me to figure out a way for the Republicans to beat Obama, but it's always a bit annoying to see the people who are getting paid do a lousy job of it. Since Schmidt came aboard the McCain contraption, they seem to be doing a less lousy job -- but I'm still sore about that canceled press conference.

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