|October 9, 2008|
|Cool Hand at the Tiller: The Maverick Needs a New Plan|
|By Jon Gingerich|
|Senator John McCain’s repeated referrals to the “cronyism” in Washington during last night’s town-hall-style debates at Nashville’s Belmont University was apt, if not ironic given the source. |
While both candidates were consistent in outlining the platitudes of their respective soapboxes, neither walked away a clear victor, as voters’ hopes for a clear, concise solution to our current economic crisis went unanswered.
The default win goes to Obama, not only because the debate reaffirms his recent ascendance in the national and battleground state polls, but because McCain still hasn’t landed an attack on the Democratic hopeful that sticks.
Thankfully, McCain chose not to use the occasion to level more attacks at Obama’s character or tenuous political affiliations. Of course, hours later the Arizona Senator would release his new 30-second TV ad referring to Obama as “not presidential.” This tactic is par for the course in the late-season election cycle. However, McCain’s recent transmutation into an attack brand smacks of last-minute desperation and undermines his campaign’s potential.
Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor recently referred to McCain as a “truly angry candidate.” It’s not simply that McCain’s claims keep getting more ridiculous; it’s their lack of centrality that renders them ineffectual — even laughable — on occasion. Republican running mate Sarah Palin’s recent claims that Obama is “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country” in reference to former Weather Underground-cum college professor William Ayers was bad enough; McCain’s allusion to Obama as a “liar” during a speech in Albuquerque earlier this week is as incredulous as it is indicative of a campaign that is grasping at straws.
There’s simply no consistency in the attacks. Is Obama a terrorist sympathizer or does he have a trigger-finger for terror-harboring Pakistan? Please make up your mind and get back to us.
Of course, Obama has retaliated with attacks of his own, circulating an online documentary highlighting the Arizona Senator’s involvement with the “Keating Five” scandal that became a focal point for the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s.
Both candidates need to stop while they’re ahead.
This kind of back-and-forth is a time-honored tradition for the election cycle. It’s good political theater I suppose, but it does nothing to aid the character or judgment of the offending party. It also does nothing for the political process. On the contrary, it reduces politics into a tar-and-feathering game between bickering biddies in a beltway sewing circle, alienating voters and widening the gap between politicians and the rest of us.
McCain could learn a lesson from backfires in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, when chief strategist and Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn re-branded the Clinton name as an attack brand against Obama, which boomeranged into negative connotations for the Democratic hopeful.
It’s also risky business. McCain’s attacks in the midst of a national economic crisis may appear as if he’s skirting the focus away from an economic solution, at a time when direct solutions are needed. Not surprisingly, McCain’s stronger jabs are the mature ones: highlighting Obama’s “vote to raise middle class taxes,” as highlighted in the new TV ad, is a good start.
Of course, many late-season campaign attacks have been successful in recent years. George H.W. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater’s use of Willie Horton to highlight Massachusetts’ infamous convict furlough program was a deathblow to Michael Dukakis’ campaign in 1988.
The same can be said of George W. Bush’s use of Republican-funded Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked John Kerry’s military record during the 2004 elections and is often cited as the reason for his defeat. McCain publicly condemned the SBVT ads.
If McCain wants to win this election, he needs to do three things.
First, he needs to come up with a solid economic plan that resonates with Americans.
Second, he needs to pick a line of attack and hammer it into the ground.
Finally, he needs to distance himself from the default position of being a continuation of the Bush Administration, a goal he is obviously working toward but still only succeeding at marginally.
He and Palin would also do well to drop the demographic pandering through absurd colloquialisms like “sit down at the table” and “cool hand at the tiller,” and other mealy-mouthed circumlocution when asked relatively simple questions.
It’s not that we’ve just become more cynical as people: we’re finally beginning to see through the rhetoric.
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