Monday, September 29, 2008

McCain’s Amazing Strategy-less Campaign

Politics lends itself to hypocrisy. I am not issuing a condemnation, merely noting a phenomenon. Candidates routinely castigate one another for judgment calls they themselves would have made – it’s simply the nature of the game. Occasionally, however, a pot-and-kettle moment of particular brilliance arrests our attention, and such a moment occurred during the first debate on Friday when McCain accused Obama of not knowing the difference between strategy and tactics.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth noting that that distinction is very close to our hearts here at VomPolitik. In fact, we talk of little else, really. It has been with particular relish that we’ve watched the professional military take McCain to task for being guilty of that same lack of understanding with regard to Iraq, as per Marcus’s post above. I will leave that particular job in their capable hands, and proceed to a wider context, which is that I am now convinced that the McCain campaign is and has been operating in the complete absence of any coherent strategy whatsoever.

My last entry emphasized the importance of seizing the Change mantle during a Change year. Earlier this year, McCain was faced with the same choice that confronted Hillary Clinton: try to win as an Establishment/Experience candidate in a Change year, or try to co-opt Change from Obama.

In this McCain had an odd advantage, in that he could genuinely have gone either way. His long DC career lends itself to the Experience line, but his Senate record is one in which, from a Change perspective, the parts are actually stronger than the whole. Obama can talk about McCain having voted with and for the Bush agenda 95% of the time; McCain could very easily counter with his castigation of Don Rumsfeld, his opposition to Bush on torture, his work in campaign finance reform, his bipartisan efforts in immigration, etc., and claim that he’s actually the voice of Change. As with HRC, it would have been a difficult sell, but not impossible.

McCain went with the Experience line, a decision that could be considered surprising for two reasons – he had just watched Hillary Clinton fail in an attempt to run as the Experience candidate in a Change year, and, more incredibly by far, he had himself been gearing up to run as the Change candidate.

All summer McCain hit the Experience line hard and kept it well in reach, until he pulled what he appeared to be an about-face with the selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. A big Dem donor told me then, “he’s making a play for the change title,” and that seemed to be the consensus opinion, further bolstered by her frequent references to ‘reform’ in her acceptance speech (not to mention the rather clever line about some candidates using change to promote their careers while John McCain used his career to promote change), and McCain’s use of the word ‘change’ 11 times in his own. Change, it seemed, was in fashion in the McCain campaign.

Except when it wasn’t. One of the McCain campaigns earliest ads for Palin is a schizophrenic attack on Obama’s experience as change agent via Palin’s executive experience. She was then set to attack Obama’s liberalism, red-meat to dedicated Republicans but not much good for the Change narrative. ‘Change’ left McCain’s own vocabulary rather abruptly. Now Sarah Palin’s capacity as an agent of the ‘Change’ mantra has been rather damaged by her apparent inability to utter a single talking point without mangling it.

McCain, meanwhile, had a golden earned-media opportunity on Friday night. Even at this comparatively late date, he could have gone a long way toward grasping the Change mantle by using the Friday debate to talk about his commitment to Change, particularly during the opening discussion on the economy, perhaps the subject ripest for talk of a new direction. Instead, he chose to belabor the point about earmarks, and then, playing the ultimate card in his Experience deck, castigated Obama for his lack of experience in foreign affairs (including the criticism that led to this post).

Strategy in politics isn’t just about message, though. It is, among other things, about using the candidate’s time well in pursuing a coordinated campaign to win critical states. In this, too, the McCain campaign has been suspect. In their first joint appearance after the convention, McCain and Palin appeared in Wisconsin, a state in which Obama enjoys a lead and which last voted Republican in 1984. Today, McCain appeared in Iowa, a state in which he trails by nine points, on the heels of condemning ethanol on Friday. What can he imagine he’ll accomplish there?

To sum up: McCain runs on the Experience platform, even though his campaign had clearly gamed out a Change run. He picks a female VP, a Change move. She talks Change. He talks Change. Then they both stop talking Change. Now she’s the attack dog and he back on Experience. Meanwhile, he periodically visits states not in play.

And it is Obama, apparently, who doesn’t understand strategy.