The presidential campaign of John McCain has been run so poorly that Republicans should be allowed to sue it for negligence. Until very recently, it has been unfocused, undisciplined, reactive rather than proactive, slow to attack and quick to falter, and lacked real internal leadership, message, and style.
But all is not lost. Amazingly, despite flat-lining until now, McCain’s campaign is showing real life: he’s running dead-even with (and in one Gallup poll, ahead of!) Barack Obama.
Can this campaign be saved? You betcha.
Herewith, the top three McCain campaign screw-ups, and helpful tips on how to fix ’em.
1. Having No Discernible Overarching Theme(s).
McCain is an ad-hoc guy, but you can’t run an ad-hoc presidential campaign (well, you CAN, but you’ll lose). Where is McCain’s major platform? Where is the cohesion of themes? There isn’t any.
McCain needs to give voters a compelling reason to vote FOR him rather than just against Obama. This means he needs to develop a positive, compelling rationale for his campaign.
When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980, he boiled his campaign down to three major themes: cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, and beating the Commies. Regardless of what question he was ever asked, he found a way to steer his answer back to one of these three themes.
McCain needs to update these themes, and add two: cut taxes (and make the existing tax cuts permanent), reduce the size of government (he’s owned this argument for 20 years), keep fighting the war on terror on the offense, achieve true energy independence, and appoint conservative judges.
If McCain hits these five basic themes over and over again, he will seize control of the national (and campaign) agenda. He’s let Obama and the Democrats run the table for too long. Most Americans are with him on these issues; they are just looking for some leadership. If McCain pounds these themes, his campaign will coalesce around simple conservative ideas that will win him the election. Remember: despite the fandango surrounding Obama, the country is still center-right.
2. He Hasn’t Yet Found a Way to Neutralize Concerns About Him.
This election will be a referendum on Obama and whether people can get over their concerns about him: he’s too liberal, too inexperienced, too young, too risky, too unknown.
But McCain ought to be figuring out a way to neutralize the concerns many voters have about HIM: he’s too old, too unpredictable, not conservative enough, not hip enough to deal with a fast-moving world, too tied to President Bush. Reagan faced similar challenges and used humor as a way to defuse them. Of course, he backed up the humor offensive with those Three Big Themes (see above), and the combination of real ideas and self-deprecation worked wonders. McCain ought to be doing the same thing so that all voters are left with are concerns about the other guy.
3. Being Too Afraid to Attack Obama.
Whether it’s old school gentility or fears of criticizing him because of his race, McCain has been way too reticent in going after Obama. Presidential campaigns are no place for eggshell-walkers. There isn’t a more hardnosed, bare-knuckled campaigner than Obama. (He put away the Clinton War Machine, for crying out loud.) McCain has just begun doing what he needs to do, and he needs to do more of it: campaign like he wants the job. This doesn’t mean he must get nasty or hit below-the-belt. It means getting a lot more aggressive in calling out his opponent, who has changed his position on every major issue from Iraq to NAFTA to talking to terrorist states to FISA, and who has a resume so thin you can see through it. Don’t worry, Senator McCain: Obama can take it, and he’s certainly dishing it out to you.
Perhaps the most crucial part of this strategy: linking Obama to the failed Democratic Congress of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Their misguided policies— from forcing a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq to pulling the war funding to denying immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with warrantless terrorist surveillance—are also Obama’s misguided policies, all of which have been repudiated. As a result, the Obama-Pelosi-Reid Congress has a whopping 9% job approval rating. (The rating of the much-maligned President is 20 points higher.) Obama is trying to hang an “unpopular” president around the neck of McCain. McCain ought to hang the even more unpopular Pelosi-Reid Congress around Obama’s neck.
With less than 100 days to go to the election, the McCain campaign has finally shown signs of life, while Team Obama looks more and more vulnerable. If McCain gives his run an organized resuscitation, he just might win this thing.
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