November 1, 2008

McCain Campaign Governed by Tactics, Not Strategy

There's a reason why the Obama campaign has referred to John McCain as "erratic." McCain's has been arguably the most poorly-executed Presidential campaign since Michael Dukakis' failed bid in 1988. McCain's campaign has been governed not by an over-arching and consistent strategy, but by disjointed and often desperate tactics, which change like clockwork.

You may be scratching your head wondering of the distinction between the two. In 2004, President Bush's campaign strategy (as conceived by the passe Karl Rove) hinged on focusing the debate on foreign policy. His tactics to achieve that end were to hammer Kerry incessently for his perceived "flip-flops" (I know, I can't stand the term either), most notably his infamous "I actually voted for the $87 billion (funding bill for US troops), before I voted against it" gaffe. This tactic was designed to make Kerry appear soft and indecisive. But another Bush tactic was to appeal to voter fears, which had ripened after September 11th. Check out this ad, released by the Bush campaign shortly before election day in 2004:

Bush succeeded in framing the debate around foreign policy, and used appeals to fear and patriotism to convince the American electorate to avoid "changing horses mid race." His message was consistent throughout the campaign, and his strategy was focused, clear and compelling.

McCain's campaign, by contrast, has lacked a consistency of message, instead resorting to erratic and often bizarre tactics to try to spin the race in his favor. The capricious behavior began on September 24th, when McCain abruptly decided to "suspend" his Presidential campaign amid crisis in the Financial sector. McCain's alleged efforts to help push a $700 billion rescue package through Congress were largely in vain, as House Republicans went against the wishes of President Bush (and McCain) to nix the initial proposal. McCain, meanwhile, left us all wondering whether or not he would even show up for the first Presidential debate later that week, only giving confirmation of his attendance the day before the scheduled debate. The entire ordeal left McCain looking scattered and indecisive.

Then, as our economic infrastructure crumbled and Obama's lead in the polls began to swell, the McCain-Palin team decided to shift their focus to character attacks. Led by Sarah Palin's assertion that Obama has been "palling around with terrorists," the Republicans counter-attacked, but the tactic was awkwardly-timed and screamed of desperation, given that the issue had seemingly been put to bed last spring during the heart of the primary season.

Shortly after, McCain claimed during a debate
"I don't care about some washed-up old terrorist." But either McCain was being disingenuous or he had lost control of his campaign, because in mid-October, automated phone ads began running in swing states, claiming that:

"Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."

The waning days of the campaign have seen Republicans run ads in Pennsylvania dredging up Obama's connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, despite the fact that McCain had previously deemed the Rev. Wright issue off-limits. See the following ad:

Given the "market conditions" in our political climate, it will be very difficult for Republicans, with such a tarnished brand, to win this election. But instead of resorting to character assassinations and tired refrains about socialism and tax & spend liberals, McCain's campaign should have utilized a strategy to focus the debate on experience and foreign policy, while carving out substantial policy differences from the incumbent administration. Instead, the selection of Sarah Palin undermined McCain's experience argument, and McCain allowed Obama to frame the debate around economic policy and paint McCain as a continuation of the Bush regime.