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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

From Mavericky To Panicky

A month ago, it’s safe to say, a lot of Democrats were in panic mode. John McCain, having apparently won the Battle of the Convention Bounces, was ahead in many national polls, and was looking particularly strong in certain key battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. Sarah Palin was being feted as a populist game-changer. Democratic efforts to chain the Republican ticket to the incumbent Republican administration seemed to be succumbing to the McCain-Palin campaign’s mavericky self-description. There was even talk that Republicans could minimize downballot losses, as the Democratic generic congressional ballot advantage shrank and in some polls disappeared.
Well, the worm has definitely turned, and though there are four weeks left until Election Day, the panic has shifted to Republicans. Yesterday Barack Obama enjoyed what Nate Silver called “perhaps his strongest individual polling day of the year,” with leads in states like MO and NC that had been thought to be McCain Country, and big leads in must-win states for McCain like VA and FL. With stocks plunging on the first trading day after Congress passed the financial bailout bill, GOP hopes that the economic crisis could be declared “over,” allowing McCain to refocus the contest on doubts about Obama, faded, probably for good.
And there are signs of considerable stress and dissension within Team McCain, whose focus and discipline in the days before and immediately after the conventions had been so impressive. Palin exceeded most expectations in the Veep debate, but still “lost” according to most polls. She then proceeded to publicly challenge the campaign’s decision to concede Michigan (while making it clear she hadn’t been in the loop when the decision was made), and then contradicted McCain’s long-standing edict against trying to make Jeremiah Wright a campaign issue. Meanwhile, McCain delivered a long negative speech full of anger and mendacity, accusing Obama of anger and mendacity, in what appeared to be a textbook case of what the psychologists call “projection.”
Even on what should be the very settled matter of the candidate’s platform, there are new problems for McCain. After getting hammered for a while about the consequences of his health care plan’s provision fully taxing employer-sponsored health benefits, McCain’s campaign suddenly shifted ground and said the candidate would pay for his plan with more than a trillion dollars of unspecified “savings” (i.e., cuts) in Medicare and Medicaid, an election-year no-no, particularly for a campaign so heavily dependent on the good wishes of seniors.
Tonight’s “town-hall” debate in Nashville is now being hopefully anticipated by Republicans as representing yet another turning point. This is, after all, McCain’s favorite debate format, and one that he’s used to. But it’s not the format most conducive to negative attacks on an opponent, or to any effort to “change the subject,” since candidates have to show deference to the priorities expressed by the “real people” asking the questions. Lecturing questioners that they ought to care more about Barack Obama’s association with William Ayers than their shrinking pensions and their inability to get a loan won’t go over very well. As John Dickerson reminds us today at Slate, the town hall format proved disastrous for an earlier GOP candidate, George H.W. Bush in 1992, who was suspected of being out-of-touch on the economy, and proceeded to prove it.
McCain’s getting all sorts of conflicting advice from Republicans on what to do to change the campaign’s dynamics now that voters are beginning to make up their minds, and in some key states, to actually cast ballots. He might want to start with the modest goal of a single day of positive vibes and positive press.

2 comments on “From Mavericky To Panicky

  1. edkilgore on

    To be clear, I’m not interested in gloating now any more than I was interested in panicking a month ago. I’m reporting that things are looking tough for McCain right now because that is actually the case, not because I’m trying to make myself or anyone else feel good. I understand and share the half-rational, half-superstitious impulse to avoid acknowledging positive facts–after all, I’ve lived through 2000 and 2004–but I also think what makes us the “reality-based community” is fact-based analysis, not rhetorical enchantment.
    I also don’t think Drew Westen or anyone else can tell us how to react to an “October Surprise” terrorist incident, since the size and circumstances of such an event could vary enormously. Even if one accepts your premise that the Bush administration can and will cook one up without getting caught, it’s axiomatic that the closer you get to election day, the more suspicious voters will be. But the one thing we do know is that the economy will be very difficult to displace. Another Osama video like the one that came out four years ago would not, in my opinion, matter much at all. And I’ve always felt that the unacknowledged ace-in-the-hole for Bush in 2004 was not fear of another terrorist incident, but the credit he got for avoiding one. Don’t be so sure that voters would stampede to McCain if his own party’s administration failed to prevent a terrorist attack.
    Finally, on Palin, I’ve tried pretty hard here to analyze what the GOP was trying to do by picking her, and where it might or might not succeed. But at this point, it’s reasonably clear the gambit has failed, probably for good, with its target audience of independent and Democratic women; Palin’s fan club now is mostly composed of conservatives who were going to vote for McCain anyway.
    Hope this responds to some of your concerns. Thanks for the comment.
    Ed Kilgore

  2. Keith Roberts on

    It’s great to feel good about Obama’s chances just now, but we should not lose sight of what has been the most likely Republican strategy of all, should Obama’s prospects get good enough: namely, the “October surprise” of a terrorist incident. Before we all start gloating, let’s think about what kind of response might be possible and effective when Bush pulls that rabbit out of his hat. What does Drew Westin suggest?
    And let me just add that this gloating is damned unpleasant. I myself would now like to hear a lot more analysis of Sarah Palin’s appeal than analysis of her defects, and ideas of how people with more decent political ideas can attract Palin’s people as well.


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