Monday, July 14, 2008

Too clever by half

One of the favorite tricks of political writers is to seize on some analogy that seems clever, pick only the evidence that supports the comparison, ignore contradictory evidence, and then bask in the glow of their own cleverness. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you John Heileman:
Feel free to tell me I'm nuts for asking the question, but doesn’t it seem that,
more and more, the McCain campaign is turning into the Clinton campaign? . . .
(You're nuts. Hey, you said, "feel free" . . .)
Yet it's hard not to see the similarities between the chaos afflicting McCain-land now and what went on in Clinton-world during the primaries. In the former, like the latter, you have an outfit with no clear lines of authority, rife with elephantine egos and feuding factions that have been at each other's throats for years, none with the slightest compunction about bearing their animosities (albeit anonymously) in the press. And in McCain, like Clinton, you have a candidate who not only tolerates but seems to encourage an atmosphere of anarchy -- and who finds it difficult to fire anyone, no matter how incompetent.
There is a world of difference between the the candidates and their campaigns. Hillary came into the campaign with higher negative ratings than Charles Manson, yet was considered the inevitable nominee. She ran a front-runner's campaign, put a pollster (Mark Penn) in charge of her team, failed to organize effectively in caucus states and didn't make organizational changes until it was too late to affect the outcome.

John McCain, who was counted out of the GOP primary contest a year ago, managed a comeback that parlayed three early primary victories (in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida) into an impression of invincibility, causing his strongest rival, Mitt Romney, to call it quits in February.

While it could easily be argued that the McCain campaign did nothing much in ensuing months to capitalize on that early knockout punch -- e.g., if they've organized at the grassroots, they did so without anyone noticing -- they now seem to be catching up in fund-raising, at least, and recent polls indicate a dead heat, despite the media's Obamamania and the "enthusiasm gap" among Republicans.

The recent shakeup at McCain HQ comes six weeks ahead of the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the general election campaign, and there's still plenty of time for further staff changes before the real serious hammering gets underway.

But here's the big flaw in Heileman's analogy: A general election is not a primary campaign. There are no caucus states (where Obama's organizational superiority trumped Hillary) and there are no "superdelegates" to be wooed (it is only because of superdelegate endorsements that Obama can claim the Democratic nomination).

Most importantly, in the general election campaign, McCain will benefit from the activities of surrogates. The NRA has announced plans to unload $40 million against Obama. The vaunted "Republican attack machine" -- talk radio, Fox News, Matt Drudge -- will swing into action, amplifying every Obama miscue and gaffe.

Liberals seem to forget the role that Drudge and other conservatives played in damaging Hillary in the early stages of the primary campaign, for instance amplifying her October blunder on drivers licenses for illegals. But by mid-March, as soon as Obama appeared to have the nomination locked up, the "attack machine" switched sides, with Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" helping Clinton to fight it out to the end.

There's no need to wonder why Obama's post-clinch "bounce" proved small and of short duration -- the "attack machine" and Operation Chaos had been softening him up for two months. It's pretty clear that cheerleaders like Heineman have underestimated Obama's unreadiness to face the "attack machine." Here's a clue: Let Hopey make some impromptu gaffe with the European press during next week's Grand Tour and see how quickly that mushrooms into a Eagleton-style crisis.

Back in 2004, I remember listening to Limbaugh one day when one of his callers complained that Bush never seemed to attack liberals directly. Rush replied, "He doesn't have to -- that's what I'm here for."

That's a point worth keeping in mind as this campaign develops. John McCain has obvious limitations as a candidate and the shortcomings of his campaign organization may be very real, but one thing the Republican nominee doesn't have to worry about is his attack message. Conservative talk radio reaches an audience numbered in the tens of millions, and a single banner headline by Matt Drudge can make TV news producers jump out of their chairs.

If there's anything we learned during the Democratic primary campaign it's that when Obama's off-script and under pressure -- remember that April 15 debate in Philadelphia? -- he's a one-man gaffe factory. And if there's anything we know about the GOP "attack machine," they're experts at making Democrats suffer for that kind of stuff. All it takes is one little goof and Obama will find himself morphed into a Walter Mondale clone.

So let John Heineman go ahead and break his arm patting himself on the back for his clever analogy. I remind him that Dukakis was ahead by 17 points in July 1988, and Bush 41 was scarcely a more appealing candidate than John McCain.

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