Monday, July 14, 2008

Use McCain (not Bush) to beat McCain

A substantial part of the Obama team strategy seems to be to Bushify McCain, to convince the public that McCain is really George Bush in disguise. In my opinion this is a flawed strategy. Let's use McCain to beat McCain, not Bush. Here's why:

The clearest reason not to stick to this strategy is that it's too obvious. It's going after McCain's weaknesses, instead of his strengths. Karl Rove based the current Republican playbook on the opposite premise: campaign on your greatest weakness, go after your opponent's greatest strength. Hence, Bush's obstinance in the face of repeated failures was painted as "strength, stick-to-it-iveness, and tenacity" while Kerry's record as a war hero was "swift-boated" into question.

Here, I'd consider taking McCain himself straight on, apart from Bush. "He calls himself a 'maverick,' but he voted lock step for blah blah blah. He calls himself a 'reformer,' but he voted for big money interests on this this and this.

Also, I'm not sure how to get it out there, but I think the public oughta know that most of McCain's colleagues in the Senate can't stand him. He's known as cranky, mean-spirited, cruel and untrustworthy. And while I personally might find being mistrusted by U.S. Senators to be a badge of honor, the American public seems to want to have a President that it trusts, likes and feels comfortable with. McCain is not that guy.

Focusing entirely on tying McCain to Bush can backfire. If the public fails to see the logic and finds McCain to be his own man (highly likely, see below), no amount of Bush-bashing will transfer and McCain, in the meantime, is free to create his own image with the public.

An even more fraught version of this strategy was attempted in 2006 in California in the campaign to defeat Gov. Schwarzenegger from his second term. The entire strategy was to tie Schwarzenegger to Bush. All campaigns and slogans of the Democratic campaign focused on this one theme. Schwarzenegger equals Bush. You don't like Bush. Therefore you don't like Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, had his own record, had scrupulously avoided appearing on the same dias as the President and sailed to a landslide victory against the unknown Democratic state treasurer Phil Angelides.

Granted it is a much easier case to paint McCain with a Bush brush than it was to paint celebrity moderate Schwarzenegger. McCain is a demonstrable social conservative and hawk who in the primary went out of his way to move as far to the right as possible and ingratiate himself with his base.

However, left to his own devices to define himself, McCain has plenty to distinguish himself from Bush. He's made a career out of defying expectations. He has made campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his work. He has voted against anti-environmental legislation (sometimes) that has been opposed by the majority of his party. And of course, he served in the military and was tortured by the North Vietnamese in tiger cages.

Let's get out there and clarify for the public who McCain really is: he's not Bush, and you still don't want him. Or, alternatively, call him a meaner, creepier George Bush, maybe make him Dick Cheney, instead of Bush (Cheney's negatives are even lower).

Food for thought.

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