The avalanche of bad news, gaffes, ugly mis-truths and near-farcical attempts to change the dynamic of the race have left John McCain squarely on the outside looking in. This much is not news. He trails in the Gallup Tracking Poll by eight points at the time of this writing, 50-42, and in other national tracking polls by percentages ranging from five to seven. His vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Sunday flatly contradicted his apparently strongest position against Barack Obama in Friday night's debate--that of opposing take-out strikes against terrorist bases in Pakistan, leaving the Republican candidate in the awkward position of having to explain that Ms. Palin should be allowed to say one thing from behind a podium, and another while holding a cheesesteak in her hand:
She would not [attack bases in Pakistan]. She understands and has stated repeatedly that we're not going to do anything except in America's national security interest. In all due respect, people going around and… sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that's—that's a person's position… This is a free country, but I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin.
Elsewhere, Senior McCain Advisor Rick Davis' deal with the devil under the heading of suspending McCain's campaign must have contained some fine print that he neglected to read, and late Sunday evening the news broke that Mr. Davis had apparently undertaken some fairly elaborate measures to hide his $15,000/month retainer from Freddie Mac. The upshot is that, perhaps anticipating this very accusation more than a year ago, Mr. Davis executed paperwork indicating that he had been separated from the employ of his own consulting firm--but then officially instructed the McCain Campaign itself to deposit his entire salary into a bank account in the firm's name. Whatever he'd hoped to accomplish from such maneuvers, it seems unlikely that this is the last to be heard of this story.
With early voting already underway in several key states, and a generally tepid review of his Friday evening performance (the best non-partisan appraisal this author could find over the weekend was that the debate probably changed few peoples' minds), the situation in John McCain's campaign could undoubtedly be described as downtrodden, if not actually bleak. And then there is the latest round of state-level polling, as reported on fivethirtyeight, shows among other things that Barack Obama's lead in Virginia had consolidated to such an extent that it is now classified there as "Likely DEM," rather than "Leans DEM"--which is cinemademocratica's standard for lighting a state in the candidate's color.
With all of the Kerry states except New Hampshire once again solidly in the fold, plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, and now Virginia, Senator Obama is shown by our standards to enjoy a twelve-electoral-vote cushion above the magic number, the two sides tallying 282-to-163 with the states of Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Indiana all as yet un-lit for either candidate:
It's a self-evident truth at this point, but it bears repeating for its significance alone: There is no good news for Mr. McCain on this map. If the election were to take place today, and all of the remaining states were to be called for Senator McCain (and incidentally he's currently trailing by amounts greater than the margins of error in Nevada and New Hampshire, too), Senator Obama would still win in a relatively un-dramatic election night canvass, with the prizes necessary to put him over the top being declared shortly after 11:00 eastern time, as near-blowout races finally ended in Colorado and New Mexico.
The opportunities for game-changing shakeups of the race, as has been written about before in these columns, is also all but at an end for Senator McCain--since each race shakeup increases the likelihood that the public will either see themselves as being manipulated, see the campaign as a circus, or both. The Arizona Senator is probably stuck with Governor Palin, for one thing--not least because at this point there really isn't anyone else who would be willing to take the job and wouldn't also infuriate the same right-wing base that was so galvanized around the McCain candidacy when he chose the Alaska Governor in the first place. There are even unconfirmed rumors that, after several practice sessions, Palin's debate-prep team has essentially given up trying to keep the Governor from humiliating herself and the ticket on Thursday.
But if things are bad for McCain and his team--as they surely are--then the one benefit from such a position is the reduced need for complex thinking. The candidate no longer need concern himself with specific states on the map, indeed probably should dispense with retail-level politicking altogether, in favor of appearances on national platforms like The View. (Well... maybe not The View.) He needn't concern himself with honing a razor-thin message that will appeal at once to specific constituencies in tiny pockets of disparate states, and can instead work on restoring his core-image to the generic American voter.
Paradoxically, this is when Mr. McCain is at his best, anyway. When he stands on stages in Roswell and Ann Arbor and promises specific things to specific groups, it all but definitionally rings hollow; this is, after all, supposed to be the man who will tell you off to your face if he's sure he's right. All the effort he's put into tailored content has had the exact opposite of its intended effect this summer and fall--tarnishing as it has our idealized imgae of a man who would put the whole country first, ahead of his chances to become President. And each time he says this same thing about Senator Obama, he loses half a dozen votes more for sounding partisan and disingenuous. Karl Rove may have been a genius tactician (indeed he may not), but his hand-picked successor Steve Schmidt is proving that ugly campaign tactics for Republicans are no more a one-size-fits-all proposition than positive and uplifting messages are, for Democrats.
Probably the last, big shakeup that McCain could bring to the race--one that wouldn't ring gimmicky with an increasingly dubious undecided middle (precisely because it would indeed change the candidacy at its foundations)--would be to summarily dismiss both Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Davis, replacing them with long-trusted friends. These would be people who could guide McCain through the tangled thicket of contrasting himself with the increasingly popular and confident Senator from Illinois, without actually having to abandon the principals that once so attracted Democrats and Independents to him in the first place. John McCain needs men at the helm of his campaign who trust the candidate to be himself, and who aren't too cynical to trust the American people to be able to keep up. He needs Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham to resign from the U.S. Senate, and take over the day-to-day operations (Graham) and message control (Lieberman) in a way that would, at last, play directly to McCain's strong suits, instead of fanning all of this sex-education-for-kindergarteners, bullshit.
Now that's a shakeup the American people would pay to see. Maybe even literally.
("The Key Grip")