Even from Paris, I can tell that John McCain is in big trouble.
As the Wall Street crisis hit like a tidal wave, Obama’s support has jumped. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s support has dropped like a stone. The ABC talking heads tore McCain apart this morning. (I can pick this up online.) What does it all mean?
I think the McCain campaign always had to thread a needle. The Republican party base is a cruel mistress. It can give you the presidential nomination, but it has some strict requirements. Don’t mess with the party’s ideology, even though it is highly unpopular. Be nice to President Bush, even though most Americans detest his presidency (except Republicans). The base gets to veto vice presidential choices, so nobody who is pro-choice can be considered. Do not stray to the center, where elections are won.
And, having met all those requirements, your job is to win the election.
Now, as near as I can tell, McCain had a plan. It went something like this. Give the base what it wants on public policy, total backing for President Bush and conservative ideology. But the rest of the country has to think he is a political moderate, a centrist willing to break with President Bush. McCain could then use his image of moderation, and his high reputation— nearing reverence among political reporters— to appear centrist. Thus ideology would not matter, because style and personality would carry the day.
In fact, to my own astonishment, McCain has actually campaigned to the right of President Bush.
He wants to stay longer in Iraq than Bush does. His foreign policy advisers seem to be the folks who left Bush because he was not belligerent enough in foreign policy. But this could work if Americans get confused about ideology, which seems to happen frequently. His thought seems to be that if people notice that he is attacking Bush they won’t notice that the attack is from the right, simply that it is a criticism of Bush.
Now a couple of things happened that made it hard for this plan to work. One was the Sarah Palin pick.
It’s one thing to mollify the base. It’s another thing to pick a manifestly unqualified person with tons of skeletons in her closet and far right ideology in the hopes of shaking up the race.
And it did shake up the race, and gave McCain a huge boost for a while.
But the Palin pick is like a high caffeine drink. It wears off fast, and you feel really crummy. Every day her support drops by a point or so, and Americans are focusing very nervously on the possibility she might be president. It won’t be long before she is the stuff of comedy.
A more patient, thoughtful candidate would have picked an experienced pro-life politician, whether male or female, and tried to tough it out. McCain went for broke, and now he has reminded people that his age and health really do matter.
The other thing McCain did was lie a lot.
I wish I could use the various euphemisms for lying (mislead, misspeak, etc.), but they don’t do the trick. Palin has followed his lead. These two seem to spout off lies every day. The problem is that for political reporters who have swallowed all kinds of stuff in the last few years, this was simply too hard to swallow. Ideological confusion might have worked, and McCain probably could have swung some version of that by muddying the waters.
But the constant lying, easily countered by video clips and printed quotes, has simply wrecked what used be his base: the media. The lying gave a timid Obama campaign the courage to attack hard and Obama seems to be having much more fun as a result. He could get used to this.
There’s plenty of time for this to turn around before election day. It’s already turned around several times. I don’t see Palin turning around, though; I think she is going to be a serious problem until election day.
Describe for me a voter who doesn’t like her today who is going to like her better tomorrow. I expect to see a lot of Rev. Wright from now on, and then we move to the ground game. There it will be struggle between the immovable object, Republican vote suppression techniques, and the irresistible force, the Obama ground attack.
In that sense, the final result of the ground game will seem to us, as Theodore White so beautifully captured it in his classic The Making of the President 1960, “invisible, as always.”
Raphael J Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester as the Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.
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