Sunday, October 12, 2008

In More Ways Than One, McCain Attacks Too Late

Everywhere one looks these days, there are signs that John McCain is fighting all the wrong battles, at all the wrong times, and for all the wrong reasons.

Candidates in close down-ticket races are avoiding contact with McCain, and as the Ayers rhetoric heats up the base (indeed perhaps even literally), many neutral observers are wondering if the tone of McCain's advertising has crossed a very serious and important line in political discourse. Questions of propriety aside--at least for the moment--there is the small matter of whether McCain can actually cut into Mr. Obama's huge lead by slinging nonsense at him a la Karl Rove. Speaking as an admitted Obama man, it does nonetheless seem a rather strange time to be raising the subject of questionable associations and judgment, what with the "final" report on Troopergate suggesting that Palin abused her office, and the Alaska Governor responding with the heart-sinking quote of disaffected supporters everywhere, "I have done nothing wrong."

Persuadable low-information voters are the customary targets for this sort of low-road nonsense, but this time around the low-information voters aren't so low-information. That's the whole problem: What little news they have the patience to digest is so dominated by stories that scare the pants off them (precisely because they are low-information voters), that allegations involving Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko have no stage-space in the low-information consciousness. In an interview conducted earlier this week, none other than Newt Gingrich joined a growing chorus of anxious Republican opinion leaders in saying that the Bill Ayers / Tony Rezko / Who-Is-Obama gambit can only end in disaster in the post-meltdown electoral landscape. "[McCain] has to make the case that he's different than Bush and better than Obama on the economy," said Gingrich. "If he doesn't win that case, it's all over, and it's going to be a very bad year for Republicans."

If Mr. Gingrich is right, then perhaps the tipping-point sign to this effect was to be found this past weekend in Philadelphia, where Sarah Palin appeared in person to drop the puck for the Philadelphia Flyers' season opener--and was resoundingly and unapologetically and continually booed by a packed house of hockey fans. Mr. McCain himself has been booed as well, though so far only when he tries to quell the fulminating vitriol among his audiences that he himself all but single-handedly created.

If McCain's new offensive on driving-up Obama's negatives has seemed inaptly timed by every trained observer in the country, it doesn't actually take a trained observer to see the inapt timing of McCain's newfound pursuit of free media--specifically his belated decision to try to make up with David Letterman. As was announced on Sunday, Mr. McCain will appear on the Late Show this coming Thursday night--though we may only assume that Letterman's demeanor will be something less than the full, bygones-be-bygones treatment that McCain's surrogates are predicting. (Just a wacky thought for anyone out there who might be contemplating a run for President of the United States: The time to have appeared on Letterman is the day you're originally booked to do so in the first place.)

Panning over to the realm of pre-debate expectations, we find Mr. McCain inaptly timing his decision to promise defeating Mr. Obama, in particular by playing the hard-ball negative campaign tactics out on the stage, where they are sure to form an even starker contrast to Obama's cool, Presidential demeanor than they have thusfar. "After I whoop his you-know-what in the debate on Wednesday," McCain told a crowd of seething hooligans masquerading as party faithful, "we're going to be going out 24/7."

And never mind the mental image of a privileged, older white guy, whipping a younger black man, never mind the fact that the public has responded badly to McCain's earlier debate performances precisely because they weren't Presidential enough, never mind that such a pledge is entirely at variance with the advice that every single opinion leader outside the campaign is offering free-of-charge, to come back with a tangible economic plan. Never mind all of that: Rule number one in Presidential campaigns is that you never, ever, ever raise your own side's expectations prior to a debate. Ever. Period. Perhaps, given the teetering support he's been getting from his own people, he didn't have much choice. But still.

And then there is the small problem of the map. Trailing badly in Michigan, but even worse in Iowa and Pennsylvania, the McCain/Palin ticket has decided to pull out of the former while redoubling their efforts in the other two. Palin's puck-drop in Philadelphia aside, Team Red has been tirelessly banging away in the west- and central parts of the Keystone State, presumably hoping that an unexpected 21-electoral-vote pickup in a typically blue state might offset some blood-loss, elsewhere. It's a desperate strategy and essentially no one expects it to work.

But Iowa doesn't even make sense on this front, polling double-digit advantages for Obama, and which is only worth seven electoral votes, anyway. If McCain needs to shake-up the map--and he surely does--then he needs to shake it up on a macro scale, rather than wasting time trying to pull weeds in states that can't possibly flip unless and until the entire race changes out from under them. “At this point,” Bush strategist Matthew Dowd told New York Times columnist John Harwood, “the campaign is totally out of John McCain’s hands.” Indeed the Key Grip's Fivethirtyeight-inspired map gets better for Obama almost by the hour, with Florida recently tipping from "Lean" to "Likely DEM," raising the good guys' total without leaners to 313, while Mr. McCain may at this moment count only on 158.

Put a different way, when you are a Republican, and there are notoriously pro-Republican pollsters like Scott Rassmussen openly speculating about the lack of wisdom in your map strategy, then you know the moment has arrived to budget some serious time, to sit down and re-think the whole thing.

Trouble is, serious time is one of the things that Mr. McCain simply does not have.

If the third debate really is an opening for McCain to "whoop Obama's you-know-what," then perhaps there is still a plausible scenario by which the race could tighten the ten to twelve points nationally that would be required to throw the electoral map back into doubt, but with each cranky and irascible performance by McCain, the likelihood of a clear debate win grows fainter and the stakes for pulling one off grow larger and more obvious. The Republican candidate will have to out-argue Obama without seeming argumentative; he will have to make Obama appear vulnerable without making his lines of assault overtly personal. In an even fight these tasks would be difficult enough--but Obama is, at this point, the clearly superior debater, with the clear advantage in favorables, better ideas, and smoother rhetoric. Add to the heightened debate stakes the folly of burning stage-time in Pennsylvania, and we are left to wonder just what McCain and his principal advisers could possibly be thinking.

Then again, it wouldn't be the first time.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


A. Gordon said...

I was particularly moved by the McCain campaign's report released Thursday night ahead of the report released Friday clearing her of any wrongdoing. I mean, I've heard of revisionist history, but this is ridiculous.

RE Wednesday night, I expect McCain to do one of two things: come after Obama by not focusing on the issues, or come after Obama focusing on the issues. If I had to bet, I'd say the former, but I really have to believe that McCain has to realize that people at this point don't want to hear about why they shouldn't vote for Obama but why voting for him (McCain) would be good.

I don't even think undecided/independent voters at this point know where McCain stands on fixing the economy because all he's talked about (and which got HORRIBLE reception not only from the Obama camp, but from within McCain's own party) is his plan to buy the bad mortgages essentially bailing out and rewarding all the lenders who made stupid decisions.

Wednesday will be interesting. I wonder which McCain will show up?

Dave O'Gorman said...

...And now there is late-breaking word (about which, much more in the next column), suggesting that the McCain campaign has "backed away" from proposing any new economic policy initiatives -- a development which almost surely reflects bitter in-fighting inside the bubble.

A. Gordon said...

I saw that. As far as I'm concerned it just continues to indicate that the McCain camp has too many cooks in the kitchen. This was addressed months ago in his campaign shake-up but never resulted in anyone's firing. This is McCain's biggest fault here, that he can't bring himself to get rid of people he needs to drop.

As a result, you have one chief saying X and another saying Y - and the problem is greatly exacerbated when X and Y are released publicly resulting in the campaign, yet again, backtracking on something it has said.

I suspect, they're just going to wait for Obama to make his speech this afternoon in Ohio and then say what's wrong with it rather than offering any initiatives of their own - unless they finally got wise.

Anonymous said...

After reading Frank Rich in the NY Times, I am asking y'all what happens if Obama is assassinated before the election? Would Biden be seated should the ticket be elected? I seem to remember that when Robert Kennedy was killed it was quite early in the summer.
Also, what is your response to Krugman winning the Nobel prize. All this free-market junk sounds to me like he isn't "my hero" anymore. What about it, guys?

isuyankee said...

Krugman's key academic work is far less polarizing than his political commentary. His theories on trade and economic geography are neither an affirmation nor a confirmation of "free market" ideology. They are merely considered a better way to understand international trade. See this link for a better explanation:

isuyankee said...

I meant to say neither an affirmation nor a condemnation....

Dave O'Gorman said...

If a candidate leaves the ticket for any reason between official nomination and election day, his or her replacement is selected in accordance with the policies of his political party (according to election law). Hence if, for example, Sarah Palin was to withdraw from the Republican ticket over the Troopergate scandal, the RNC would be responsible for naming her replacement (though in reality this would undoubtedly be negotiated with McCain).

In the case of a vacancy at the very top of the ticket, the party is free to choose whomever it wants, by whatever mechanism it wants, though barring some compelling reason not to pick them, probably the runner-up in each party's primary contests would be the obvious choice -- assuming that one considers Mr. Romney to be the Republican's primary runner-up and not Mike Huckabee, who has already gotten as close to high office as he is ever going to get.