Three Hail Marys

Joe Klein is spot on when he calls out John McCain for what he rightfully sees as a “gimmick”.  Rep. Barney Frank, who is actually leading the way in negotiating a bailout deal with the administration joins Klein in calling John McCain out on yet another hail mary pass.

But will it work?  Good question, and one that nobody can rightly predict, but considering that this is actually the third hail mary that the McCain campaign has thrown, I believe we can take a look at how things shaped up in the past to predict the effectiveness of this long shot in the present.

You may have balked a little at the mention of three hail mary passes by the McCain campaign.  Most, I’m sure, would only count this as the second, and even then only if this move counts and you count the selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate, which I’m sure there are still dozens out there that don’t.

But the first came actually quite a bit earlier this year, and I admit that it only earns its classification as such in retrospect after having observed the McCain campaign in action during the general election, and being able to perhaps not predict, but at least understand its actions.

Yet, I maintain that there was a hail mary pass thrown before the Sarah Palin announcement.  You’ll have to go back to the end of the Democratic primaries.  McCain, without having to really battle either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, squandered a golden opportunity.  His two prospective opponents were too busy beating each other up to focus overly much on him
and yet McCain was either doing little, or incapable of doing much to place himself in a highly advantageous spot to make a run against a Democratic challenger.

By contrast, when the dust settled and Obama finally came through as the presumptive Democratic nominee, he was bloodied and he faced a party that was at least at the time threatening civil war.

Once it was clear who the party candidates would eventually be, Obama and McCain were already in a tight race.  On the one hand, McCain should have been able to start out better given the circumstances of the two different primary seasons, but on the other, no Republican candidate should be all that much worried starting off relatively even in an election year where everything would indicate an easy ride for a Democratic candidate.

But there were two other factors that may have proven problematic for the McCain campaign at the time.  The first was the “enthusiasm gap”.  Starting off in a dead heat with one’s opponent is not always the worst way to kick off a general election, but it is when your opponent has you at an enthusiasm deficit.

In a conventional campaign that starts off even, yes, there are going to be political events that can shape a race out of one’s control, but you can’t plan bet on those events.  You do, however, rely on the ground game, and McCain knew he was going to struggle against what many pundits were already calling the most impressive grassroots organization in recent political history.

The other thing that likely had McCain staffers already eyeing the panic button was fundraising.  Obama’s fundraising machine was unmatched by any in history, and it was looking increasingly like he would not be accepting public funding and the requisite chains that comes with it.  Any political strategist worth his or her salt that sees an opponent with superior funds and a superior get out the vote organization knows that winning under conventional means is highly unlikely.

This, I believe, set the stage for the first hail mary pass of the political season from McCain, though no one called it as such.  The proposal that instead of the three or four presidential debates that we typically see in a presidential election, Obama join John McCain in ten townhall style debates, even going so far as to campaign together and use the same plane.

At the time, no one would call it a hail mary for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the McCain campaign had yet to establish a pattern of action out of desperation.  Indeed, while many had doubts that McCain would be able to give Obama a run for his money, few would have been able to qualify the candidacy as “desperate”, especially with the polling numbers favorable considering the political anti-Republican climate.

This is tied to the second reason in that at the time, before McCain’s campaign became irrevocably tied to sleazy campaign ads and bald faced lies, a lot of America I think believed that both McCain and Obama represented a transformational style of politics.  Both men at least wanted to be symbolically typified as harbingers of a new brand of politics, and in this spirit McCain’s proposal may have seemed totally in character.

But I think one has to look closer at the nuts and bolts of the election process to understand exactly what’s going on here.  Ten debates in the style that McCain was proposing could have potentially neutralized Obama’s monetary advantage as it would have essentially tied Obama into a co-campaign with his opponent.  Further, the townhall format is a notorious McCain strength, and if he managed to greatly upstage Obama in a majority of the ten, that could have feasibly nullified or at least mitigated the enthusiasm gap.

But, and this goes out to anyone who watched all or most of the primary debates, one of the big effects of having so many debates in such a short time frame is that it would have greatly decreased the significance of the debates themselves.  Debates can be major game changers, but not if people stop caring about them, which would have happened at about the third debate in my opinion.

Indeed, McCain’s proposal would have altered the fundamentals of the election in ways that are too numerous to count, and in most cases they would have been to McCain’s benefit.  And, if they played it correctly, should Obama opt out, they could skewer him for it.

But that hail mary appeared to have been an incomplete.  Obama did opt out, and while there might have been some grumbling at the time, there wasn’t nearly enough to make a dent in the state of the race.  Still, it would seem months later that that particular hail mary pass was thrown deeper than anyone may have predicted.

Three months later, when asked why McCain’s campaign had adopted such a sleazy tone, the senator from Arizona would blame Obama’s decision not to accept McCain’s proposal.  That was aimed straight at the end zone in the middle of a cluster of jerseys, and it would be favorable to call that particular hail mary incomplete.

Next up was Sarah Palin.  This one was rightly pinpointed as a hail mary because unlike the hail mary from a couple months earlier, the McCain campaign was beginning to develop something of a stench of desperation.  To this day it is unclear exactly when McCain decided to go with Palin, but we know that at least from some whispers she was not his first choice.

Originally McCain wanted Joe Lieberman to join the ticket.  But McCain was already looking at a socially conservative base that didn’t trust him, and selecting Lieberman as a running mate could have resulted in outright revolt.

Indeed, the selection of Palin is put anywhere from the opening of the Democratic convention, to the eleventh hour.  In any case, McCain was looking at a hostile social conservative movement, and, if Palin was indeed picked in the middle of the Democratic convention, a convention that was orchestrated to near perfection.

Obama who had only a slim lead on McCain up to that point, was about to take off in the polls, leading to a hasty maneuver that had even the most inside of inside ballplayers second guessing themselves at the last second.  In the wee hours of Friday morning after Obama delivered his acceptance speech, Governor Tim Pawlenty was still the sure bet.

And then came Governor Palin, someone who could at once energize the conservative base, hopefully someone who could pick off disenchanted Hillary supporters, and suck all the positive wind out of the Obama campaign’s sails.

In the near term, the pick seemed to work.  It didn’t go far in picking off Clinton supporters, true, but it did miracles for McCain’s standing within his own base, and Palin turned into a media circus for a time ultimately resulting in the largest lead McCain had seen in the campaign up to that point; about five points.

But while this hail mary pass was at least bobbled for a few agonizing seconds that seemed to last an eternity in the end zone, it would eventually become clear that it would end up being another dropped pass.

Palin’s selection would give the Obama campaign an opportunity to take Florida, and the enthusiasm gap that was once closed by Palin’s entrance into the race has, at least according to some polls, been opened up again (I apologize for no citation here; this assertion comes from a poll I checked out today, but thanks to a computer that decides it wants to act up on me, I’m having trouble tracking that poll down again.  If I can, I’ll come back and insert the link later).  But also, it’s important to note that Palin’s numbers are dropping, and she’s dangerously close to becoming a drag on the ticket.

On top of this, the McCain campaign has had to throw up a series of roadblocks that has angered the press, and instead of quelled, only encouraged more rigorous public vetting of the candidate.  Palin has also brought with her a series of lies from the ticket, as well as a number of costly gaffes that have painted a picture that Palin is woefully lacking in the kind of knowledge one would hope to see in their vice president.

In other words, the Palin selection is turning out to be one big epic fail.

And thus we turn our eyes to the third hail mary currently in progress.  As has been reported, the only difference in the state of the economy over the past 48 hours is that McCain’s polling numbers are dropping.  In this regard, I don’t think it can be any more transparent that McCain’s decision to suspend his political campaign can be anything other than a political ploy, and a poorly disguised one as well.

For ten days McCain has been flailing about for the right answer and the right tone, and has been coming up short at each bend in the road.  Now, after a slew of polls show up that indicate that he’s about to start sinking like the Titanic, McCain engages in a move that positively reeks of desperation.  Keep in mind, this is not the beginning of the election season anymore, and this act takes place in the context of a political campaign that has been deemed dishonest and sleazy.

Further, one must be forced to ask the question, why now?  Why two days before a debate?  Why not make this determination a week and a half ago instead of claiming that the fundamentals of the economy were still strong, or perhaps a day or two later when you had to walk back that remark, or even a day after that when you tried floating a commission to investigate the problem?

Why now?  Oh, right, polls.

This is undoubtedly a hail mary pass intended to paint McCain as a leader who would rather fix the economy than win an election.  But there are problems there.  For one, the context simply doesn’t support the narrative.  Sure, there’s the possibility that McCain really does want to suspend the campaign to fix the economy, but given their actions in the past, and the light of new polling, it looks like a gimmick to force things in the opposite direction.

For another, while the initial reports claimed that this move put Obama in a bind, the correct response was blatantly obvious: a President has to be able to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, why can’t McCain?  Further, as Obama himself put it:

“This is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Obama told reporters at a news conference in Florida.

“In my mind, actually, it’s more important than ever that we present ourselves to the American people and try to describe where we want to take the country and where we wnt to take the economy as well as dealing with some of the issues of foreign policy that were initially the subject of the debate,” he said.

Obama also said he, McCain and other officials could address the crisis in a bipartisan fashion and still go on with the campaign, noting that multi-tasking comes with the office.

“It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once,” he noted.

Thus, in trying to derail the current trend, McCain only managed to make himself vulnerable as someone who can’t handle the multiple responsibilities of the presidency in tandem.

Finally, the last little bit of evidence that makes me believe that this hail mary pass will fail like the two before it, comes from a quick poll from Survey USA which indicates that McCain’s proposals in general will not go over well, with only 10% of the 1000 people polled believing that it is a good idea to postpone the debate.  It is important to note that across the board, regardless of ideology and party affiliation, the small numbers come up for McCain, including among conservatives and Republicans.

My final thoughts on this; McCain has shown himself to be anything but a steadfast and ready leader.  Instead he relies on parlor tricks and gimmicks to try and outdo his opponent.  There would be some merit to his methodology except for the fact that the risks that he takes never seem to come off, and with each successive new trick, he seems to get called out for it faster.

They say that you govern the way you campaign.  If that were true, we have already seen enough from the McCain campaign to know that John McCain should never be allowed near the Oval Office unless summoned there by the president as a senator, and in light of the past few months, even that is in question.  But now it is becoming clear that all McCain has is a bunch of gimmicks, and the last thing we need is someone who runs the country from one gimmick to the next.

We’ve had eight years of that, from lying us into war to trying to privatize Social Security.  We really don’t need four more years of that.

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