Beating John McCain

Yesterday, not really understanding the good thing he has going on for him right now, John McCain opted to open his mouth to attack one of his potential rivals in the General Election this fall.

The jab was lashed out towards Barack Obama whom McCain said, “he has no experience or background in any of it,” referring to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.  This while Crooks & Liars points out that McCain’s own expressed words regarding what went on in Basra don’t exactly encourage confidence in McCain knowing what he’s talking about either.

This is just one out of a string of Iraq/foreign policy based gaffes that the Republican nominee has made over the past few weeks, gaffes that should in no way be coming from a man who is apparently running on strong foreign policy and military credentials.

There is a problem, though; there’s a respectable probability that it all could work out very well for McCain, and that is one of the things that we are going to have to focus on in the coming months and weeks.

It will work because it’s the unnuanced argument.  Simple narratives work, folks, and they work best in the heat of the General Election when it’s not a matter of party faithfuls voting, but instead the general populace who get their entire political news from the morning chat shows on their drive to work, or on the evening news.

With this input flow of information, if the narrative becomes, “I’m John McCain, and I am the most experienced candidate,” it’s going to resonate and it’s going to win.

Thus, whichever Democratic candidate eventually ends up with the nomination, the single worst strategy either of them could possibly employ would be to attempt to make this presidential election a contest over who has the most experience.  This is true even for Hillary.  Believe me.  If you think the, “35 years of experience,” tag line is going to stand up for five minutes of John McCain’s experience, you’re deluding yourself.

The ideal situation here is to switch up the debate; to do something I think is going to be difficult but ultimately rewarding and turn experience into a negative from a positive.  While tricky, it is doable for reasons that are ultimately pretty sound; this time around, experience actually isn’t that good of an idea.

Having an intellectual grounding in Middle East affairs and the broader West Asia region is vital, but experience connotes a tie to conventional wisdom which has yet to serve us well given the fact that we have been tied up in the middle east for decades now and we’ve yet to come close to anything resembling stability.

That McCain’s “experience” is essentially the same as George W. Bush’s is exactly what I’m talking about, and the key to flipping the script on experience as a positive trait will be to tie McCain irrevocably to the current president.

The greater argument has got to be, essentially, that conventional wisdom has yet to succeed, and it’s now time for new wisdom.

Nor, do I think, can we afford to run from the issue as we have in the past, or run towards the right on the issue either.  The latter is pretty simple; if you try to run as a Republican, people are going to vote for the actual Republican–they have more “experience” at being one.

Conflicting with this concept is the fear that many Democrats feel come election time that if they appear too weak on National Security, they are going to get voted out of office by a nervous electorate.  There’s truth to this, but being guided by this truth is not smart politics, it is a failure to communicate with the voters.

I think one of the key points to beating John McCain is effectively communicating an alternative vision of foreign policy, and then standing by it.  Because our foreign policy is a little more nuanced, and a little less macho, and because neither of these attributes seem to play well in November, there is a much comprehended tendency to try to shift the focus attention onto those issues where Democrats tend to poll better.  The problem with this strategy is that it keeps the aspects of our foreign policy proposals in the nuanced and less macho region where they become liabilities as opposed to shifting them into the understood and logical reasons where they can resonate and attract voters.

Shorter: if we keep trying to run away from the foreign policy debate, no one is going to understand our foreign policy.  In the end, what you will have is the unnuanced neoconservative foreign policy up against a hazy cloud of confusion, and few people are going to want to vote for the confusion as opposed to the very reassuring tanks and guns that McCain will undoubtedly provide.

Thus, whomever it is we call our nominee after the Democratic primary has run its course, that person must, and I can’t express this enough, they must provide a clear contrast on foreign policy, they must speak of it frequently, and they must communicate that vision in a way that really resounds with a lot of people.

This is the first step to beating McCain.  Foreign Policy is supposed to be his bag, and sure enough, Democrats in general poll under Republicans when it comes to keeping the country safe.  But part  of the reason for this is because they have dominated the debate while we have tucked tail and ran.  It’s time to stand up and force the debate.

The next step is going to be to focus on the economy, which should be John McCain’s weak spot.  The only problem is that McCain is going to sing the same song that Republicans have been singing since I was born, and it’s a tune that Americans love; lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes.

While I’m not fond of the tune myself, it is one of the longest running hits of all time and put both the Beatles and Elvis Presley to shame.

Now, when I discussed communicating to the voters earlier, that was really just code for dumbing down the argument and it’s necessary in foreign policy where more Americans feel as though they are versed enough to make an educated decision.  With the economy, I think we engage in a totally different tactic.

I think we launch Operation: Make McCain Look Dumb (mini contest; who can come up with a better name for this?).  And here’s where my mind is going on this.  We all know that McCain doesn’t know a damn bit about the economy; he’s actually said as much.  We also know that both of our candidates are far better versed in the subject and can talk circles around him in it.

Now, unlike foreign policy, I think the economy is a topic that intimidates most people, and ultimately, is a topic where they expect the discussion to go over their heads.  So, well, why not actually do that?  There should be a dumbed down version that can be distributed in mailers and is friendly in soundbites, but I think the key here is to make McCain look like a bumbling fool any time the topic of discussion turns to dollars and cents, thereby reducing confidence in McCain’s ability to oversee an economy that is in serious trouble as is.

Nowhere is this going to be more important at the debates, and that we already know what McCain’s answers will most likely entail, it shouldn’t take too much time out of debate camp to have pat answers down that will not only make his message on the economy look ridiculous, but will show how they will harm the economy even further.

Moving on, we still face the same danger that we always seem to face; wedge issues.  Wedge issues always seem to carry with them the possibility of sinking a solid candidate.  While the nation tends to be split down the middle on wedge issues, one thing that I have noticed is that the other side’s stances on wedge issues tend to be more unified, energized, and more likely to vote.  The Religious Right accounts for a lot of this, and thankfully we have a Republican candidate that isn’t openly in bed with them which may help us out, but I think it would be naive to believe that there won’t be mailers sent out claiming that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would ban the bible and legalize gay marriage.

One thing that we have to understand is that while the right may never fully unify behind McCain like they did Bush, they will unify against the Democratic candidate, and we need to find a way around that.  Unfortunately, if we knew how to survive discussions about abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, gun control, etc., we would have done it by now.

What has to be the focal point here, I believe, is honesty and context.  Our candidate is going to be painted as grotesquely leftist no matter what happens, so I think the point is being open and honest regarding one’s position on whatever hot button comes up, but that position must be put in the following context.  “Whatever my position is on (issue), one thing that everyone must understand is that I’m running for the United States of America, not the United States of (pro-issue) and not the United States of (anti-issue).  This is part of the great American debate, and we all have our own opinions and we all have our own ideas, and that is incredibly American, but what is also American is coming together with our differences of opinion and finding solutions and compromises that benefits ALL Americans.”

You know, something like that.

Bonus points to the candidate who can actually switch the debate from for or against to finding a common desire and getting both sides to focus on that goal.

I think it’s a big risk, but one worth taking to not run away from the hot buttons.

But we also have to look at raw political strategy, and I think there is only one way to go–fifty state strategy.  There are things that we have to look at when it comes to John McCain as a candidate, and voter turnout.  For one, John McCain is obviously not a candidate that a lot of conservatives and Republicans are particularly excited about.  The conservative punditocracy will unite behind him when it counts, but you’re not likely to get the same kind of enthusiasm as with Romney.  The Religious Right will likely line up too, but not the same way as they would have behind Huckabee.

Here’s a guy who was essentially picked because he has the potential to wax the floor with the eventual Democratic nominee when it comes to National Security, and that’s about it.  What I think we are going to see is not so much a broad conservative movement endorsement for McCain so much as an attempt to get him elected by really hating the Democratic nominee.

Further, McCain’s not going to be able to keep pace with the fundraising efforts of the Democratic nominee, and one thing that primary turnout has indicated thus far is that he’s going to have to find away to reverse depressed Republican voter turnout.

Ultimately, this present John McCain as a potentially vulnerable candidate.  He has broad crossover appeal (which itself will have to be addressed, particularly towards wayward Democrats and left leaning independents) which makes him a threat to swing voters, but his own base of support is comparably weak.

The key to the fifty state strategy with McCain is to allow the weakness felt in the base transfer over to the swing voters essentially by making McCain campaign in his own back yard.

No one thinks that a Democrat is going to carry Texas, or Georgia, or even Kansas (…I’m tempted to say that Obama could carry Kansas but even with everything he has going for him in the state, I just don’t see it as possible), but that’s not the point.  The point is that with superior funds and resources, the Democratic nominee can put up a strong enough showing in Republican strong holds that will force McCain to expend precious time and money to keep the red states red.

This will weaken his ability to go after the swing states with full capacity, and allow the Democratic nominee to swoop in with media buys and grip and grins to lock these states in.  Also, it keeps McCain out of our backyard as he simply won’t have the resources to waste defending his own territory.

Besides keeping McCain on the defensive when it comes to electoral math, however, there is another benefit of running in all fifty states.  One of the big problems with the electoral college is that too many people feel left out of the process.  Every four years pollsters and consultants get together and break down the demographics and basically pick out a handful of states that they deem are in play.  These pick up the coveted swing state label, while the rest of the states must be content with mass market media buys and televised national events such as the debates and the party conventions.

If a state isn’t close enough and doesn’t have the electoral votes to be significant, they get left out in the cold.  I think there’s a lot to be said for making people feel included, and it would be interesting to see how much closer the votes will be in deep red states if the Democratic nominee took the time and energy to make them feel as though their vote actually counted for something.

That is going to be it for now, but keep in mind that this is merely a skeleton, if that, and definitely open to much debate.  What bothers me is that this is an election that Democrats shouldn’t be able to lose, but John McCain serves as something of a wild card, one that is appealing in places that Giuliani and Romney and Huckabee simply weren’t.

I think this election is going to be trickier than anyone would have guessed a year ago, or even trickier than anyone is thinking now, and while the Democratic primary is currently the big to do right now, we still have to keep at least one eye trained on November and not letting a man who would be essentially a third term of President Bush even close to the wrong side of Pennsylvania avenue.

6 Responses to “Beating John McCain”

  1. from swimming freestyle:

    “John McCain has admitted he’s clueless when it comes to the economy. (Fear not – he’s checked out Alan Greenspan’s book from the library). He’s made it pretty clear he intends to run on his military record and gung ho, never mind the facts, position on Iraq. That might be OK if he could just get the details right.”

    http://swimmingfreestyle.typepad.com

  2. Tried to leave a comment there. Good post, and this is the kind of thing that we need to keep hammering McCain on from now until November. That the economy isn’t the only thing he doesn’t know anything about, and while his service to his country is something to be honored, it isn’t a blanket qualifier to handle the challenges that the President of the United States must handle.

  3. Dynamic says:

    One thing I try to bring up frequently is the powerful effect of humour on elections. Let’s face it – the really informed voters have already made up their minds. We’re not trying to convince them. They guys and girls we’re after are the guys and girls who are trying to get by amidst declining salaries and alarming news reports, who don’t have time or inclination to research these things. These are the people who bought into Swift Boat because it was repeated enough.

    Well, we can play the same game, but play it fair. No need to make anything up about McCain – the truth will serve just fine! But the important thing is making it stick.

    Now, which of these are you more likely to remember tomorrow:

    A) John McCain has a proven track record on making poor decisions regarding the environment, including these specific examples (and examples are provided here)

    OR

    B) John McCain – he’s winning the war on nature!

    Or how about:

    A) John McCain is running on his foreign policy credentials, but he can’t even keep track of what sects Al-Quaida and Iran belong to, a highly relevant piece of information that he’s blanked on numerous times;

    OR

    B) John McCain’s been endorsed by AARP, and he can’t remember who else

    If you’re not a political junkie like most of us, the latter choices are going to stick in your head a lot more easily. If you find it funny enough, you might even repeat it at work the next day, or post it on your myspace, or put it in your knitting, dancing, or Fall Out Boy blog. Fire off enough of these throwaway lines and eventually some are going to stick – and they’re going to become the narrative, because they’re easily repeated, clever, and contain a message about McCain’s politics that can’t be divorced from the humour.

    Republicans are experts at crafting these sorts of things, but there’s no reason we can’t do it better – and again, we have truth on our side, we don’t NEED to lie about their candidates.

    We just need to be clever about it. This is grassroots marketing (which in my involvement with raving I work with every day) and it works, unequivocally.

    One last piece, which I think is hilarious – and nails a demographic who otherwise wouldn’t care about McCain, but if 1 out of 50 of them votes, that’s X number of votes who otherwise wouldn’t have gone our way, and it all adds up.

    http://a166.ac-images.myspacecdn.com/images01/107/l_9e746868d7c9e6efda4aff9f1cf0848d.gif

  4. D: HOLY SHIT I DAMN NEAR PISSED MY PANTS! It’s actually much funnier when you have about three or four pokemon games in a shoe box that you still dust off once in a while to kill time with. You bring up some great points, and I think, you know, that’s one thing that gets me, Democrats campaigning really does seem very serious and dour.

    So… my goal, from now on, every post about McCain will at least attempt to contain one throw away line. We’ll see how it goes.

    Non: Tell me more about this site, it’s interesting if not expansive yet.

  5. Terrence White says:

    The key to beating John McCain is to catch him in lies, in which he will look stupid afterwards. For instance at one of his rallies, he mentioned that if he was president when Hurricane Katrina happened he would have landed his helicopter in New Orleans within 24 hours. Well as memory serves me correctly, he was near a helicopter on August 29,2005 along with President Bush celebrating his birthday. Now call me crazy, but isn’t a weather crisis more important than a damn peice of cake. One final note, John McCain also visited New Orleans this year and made a litlle speech about how if he was president, he would have gave more funding to the city of New Orleans. That’s very interesting, considering that John McCain was one of the many senators who voted to cut off funding for the city of New Orleans. (AND HE WONDERS WHY IT STILL LOOKS LIKE CRAP!) I dont think, I know that if John McCain is elected president he (just like that moron Bush) is going to care more about a damn war than helping struggling America.

    JOHN + MCCAIN = LIAR

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