Archive for October 14th, 2008

McCain Comeback?

I posted last week, and still believe, that the campaign is essentially over and that barring something completely surprising, Barack Obama is on course to become our 44th President.  However, there is three weeks left in the campaign and McCain could still turn it around.  The reasons not dismiss completely the idea of a McCain comeback aren’t compelling, but are real: 1) Obama may be peaking too early, and if the financial mess fades from the headlines, people may start to rethink their position; 2) Obama had trouble closing the deal against Hillary Clinton, so he may not be able to finish as strong as he needs to; 3) Obama’s support is softer than McCain’s, and thus there is a greater chance people currently supporting him could change their minds; and 4) undecideds who haven’t been swayed to go for Obama by the current financial mess are perhaps more like to end up voting for McCain than Obama.   So despite appearances, the GOP still has some hope.  And for me, an interesting question is what kind of strategy would McCain need to come back?

First, he needs some help from the environment.  No more negative stories like the Sarah Palin interviews or troopergate report.  The financial crisis needs to fade in relative importance (though no one thinks the economy won’t be issue one), and there can be no bad surprises from Iraq and Afghanistan.  In short, the environment has to be such that McCain has a chance to control the story line during the final three weeks of the campaign.

Second, he needs to win Wednesday’s debate.  He doesn’t have to “whip Obama’s you know what,” as he boasted he’d do, he just needs to pull off what most analysts might say is “his best performance,” one that will “do him no harm.”  Debates are only a small part of the campaign; if he overshoots and tries for a KO, Obama will likely be able to out manuever him.  But make no mistake, he needs a strong performance to mount a comeback.

Third, he needs to avoid the temptation to try any more “hail Mary’s.”  At this point he may be tempted, gambler that he is, to try for something big.   But his attempts to do so in the past — the choice of Palin, the decision to suspend his campaign and then to back off, off and on attempts to inspire anger among the GOP faithful, and shifting reactions to the financial crisis have created doubts that this 72 year old is really on top of things.   Since his job in the next three weeks will be to create doubt that Obama is up for the job, he has to work to overcome the reputation he’s getting for being erratic himself.  He can’t undo past mistakes, but he has to be steady as a rock for three weeks, and avoid looking like he’s desparate.  Like a football team behind by three scores at the start of the fourth quarter, he needs to focus on ‘one touchdown at a time,’ and not panic.  If he’s behind by 10 on November 2nd, he can throw deep.  Otherwise, he needs to steady his game.

Beyond that, he does need to continue to have his surrogates and his campaign talk about Rev. Wright and William Ayres.  I know, those of us who prefer Obama find such attacks to be a distraction, unfair, and based on fear mongering and racism.  They are a sign of a candidate behind who is willing to do anything he can to win.  But McCain is behind, and putting on a strategist’s hat for the moment, the key is to do whatever it takes to win.  So being Machiavellian about this — the “is” rather than the “ought” — it seems to me essential that McCain foster seeds of doubt about Obama if he is to have a chance.   To work this must not be the centerpiece of his campaign.  If it gets too much push, McCain will appear again erratic and desparate; Americans don’t want a negative campaign at this point.  He needs to have it present, but subdued.  It need not itself sway voters, it must only ‘soften up’ already soft Obama voters, and make them more willing to change their minds.

McCain must then have a persistent, steady approach that stresses small but effective government, tax relief, a bold but not bizarre plan to deal with the financial crisis (no ‘special prosecutors’ or anything like that), and reinforce the idea that the American people have “always known and trusted John McCain to be a conservative pragmatist.”  The only way McCain can win this is not to have people suddenly think Obama is a scary terror coddling socialist.  Rather, for people to decide that though they think Obama a decent and well intentioned man, at this point McCain is a safer choice.

The main reason why I think that even if McCain does everything right he won’t be able to pull this off is Obama’s spending advantage, get out the vote effort (untested and thus uncertain, to be sure), and disciplined campaign.  True, he didn’t deliver a knock out blow to Clinton.  But he held back, he knew he’d need to win the support of Hillary, Bill and their supporters.  Most have switched to Obama now and as I noted then, the intense primary race probably helped rather than hurt Obama.   Still, McCain has a chance if he eschews efforts for dramatic hail Mary’s, let’s Palin take care of the base, has an environment without further shocks and disruptions, and mixes a continuing negative line of attack against Obama with a postive, steady message.  His first job will be to win — even if very narrowly — Wednesday’s debate.

With the mood of the country the way it is, Obama’s job is much easier.  He must convince voters that he is qualified by temperment and character to be President.  He has gone a long way in making that sale in the first two debates, and with a lot of ad money available, will have every chance in the world to make that case during the next three weeks.  He needs to fend off the negative attacks from McCain, and maintain the subtle criticism of McCain as desparate and erratic.   If he can make McCain look risky, it undercuts McCain’s efforts to make Obama look risky.  Finally, he can’t just sit on his lead, he has to keep doing what he’s been doing, and continue to use any negative attacks from the right to motivate his base.

About 15 years ago the Buffalo Bills erased a Houston Oiler lead of 32 points early in the second half to come back and win the game, a feat called by some the greatest comeback ever.  A McCain comeback now would be on a par with that one.  Perhaps McCain should try to contact Frank Reich, the Bill’s Quarterback on that day, to see if he can come manage his campaign.

1 Comment