The headline from Jonathan Martin and Jim VandeHei of The Politico says it all: “McCain, Palin push biography, not issues.”
When John McCain’s campaign manager said last week that this presidential election “is not about issues,” it wasn’t a Freudian slip. It was an unvarnished preview of McCain’s new campaign plan.
In the past week, McCain — with new running mate Sarah Palin always close by his side — has transformed the Republican campaign narrative into what amounts to a running biography of this new political odd couple.
In the duo’s new stump speech and their first post-convention ad, the impression campaign strategists hope to leave is unmistakable. McCain is the war hero. Palin is the Everymom. And together, they will rattle Washington.
Considering the big challenges the country faces — two wars and a wobbly economy, for starters — the focus on personal narratives might strike some as jarringly superficial for the times.
Well, you go to war with the candidates you’ve got, and the McCain-Palin ticket has no policy ideas other than those which are identified with the Bush-Cheney administration and/or the right wing of the Republican Party. I’m reminded of a comment that William F. Buckley once made about a photo-laden biography of his political nemesis, New York Mayor John Lindsay: “If I were commissioned to write a favorable biography of Lindsay, it would consist entirely of photographs.”
There’s a school of thought, particularly strong among Democrats, that says issues “don’t matter” in presidential elections; that it’s all about character, and narrative, and striking the right emotional chords. We are often told that Al Gore and John Kerry lost because they didn’t understand this “truth.”
I don’t buy it, especially this year. Sure, elections are not public policy seminars; many voters are unversed on policy, and/or don’t trust that politicians will do what they promise when in office; and the majority of voters have made up their minds on party ID grounds before any debate on issues occurs. But voters do have concrete concerns that are connected to specific needs, for themselves and their country, and specific grievances about the performance of those in power today. It need not be an exercise in sterile wonkery to point out, for example, that John McCain’s health care plan is a carbon-copy of Bush’s most recent proposal, that would undermine job-based health insurance, drive millions of Americans into expensive individual policies, and make it even harder than it already is for people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage. This argument can and should be made with passion and even anger. But it needs to be made, against the effort by Team McCain to get across the finish line without discussing or defending what the man might actually do as president. (The debates will be a high hurdle for this effort).
Bring on the passionate wonkery, the compelling talking points, the policy debates wrapped in narrative and the needs of “real people!” To a remarkable degree, the Republican ticket is ceding the whole vast ground of America’s future agenda to Democrats. Let’s use it.