What Is McCain’s Problem?

From John McCain’s perspective, the dispiriting outcome of the last presidential debate was determined long before he and Barack Obama arrived on the Hofstra campus. It had been decided months before, in fact, largely by the ineptitude of the Republican campaign’s strategists. Actually, as experienced figures in both parties now agree, “strategist” is probably too generous a term to describe the people managing McCain’s campaign. (Lobbyist is generally a more accurate term for the top advisers but beside the point here.) Rick Davis, Steve Schmidt, and the rest of the McCain-Palin crew have consistently failed to move their campaign above the tactical level.

“I’m not Bush,” the latest gambit tried out by McCain last night onstage and in a new commercial, is not a strategy. (And it is altogether too vulnerable to rebuttal, as the new Obama ad proves with the opponent’s own utterance.) “Obama knows Bill Ayers” was not a strategy either, although it has been substituted for one over the past few weeks, nor was the variation of “Obama lied about knowing Bill Ayers.” Complaining about ACORN’s bad voter registrations? That’s a tactic, too, and not a very effective one. McCain’s exaggerated debate warning about the “fabric of democracy” was feeble substandard demagogy, and fell flat instantly. You know that a campaign is bereft of ideas when the candidate and his staff mindlessly repeat charges that are obviously backfiring.

To understand the magnitude of failure, contrast the clumsy McCain effort with the elegant Republican campaigns of elections past. When they won, it was almost always with a well-planned high-low combination. The Republican machine presented its candidate, whether it was Reagan or either Bush, as a leader above the fray, with all the desirable qualities of optimism, determination, and decency. The dirty business, and there was always dirty business, was handled by other people whom the candidate did not know and of whom he did not necessarily approve. So in 1988, for instance, there was George H. W.
Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech at the G.O.P. convention in New Orleans. And there was the Willie Horton ad, put up by a sleazy crew whose connections to the Bush campaign team did not emerge until long after Election Day. In 2000, there was George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” a charming deception accompanied by vicious “independent” attacks on first McCain and later Al Gore.

That traditional dual approach has not been fully available to McCain this year. The marauding 527 donors responsible for the infamous Swift Boat ads of 2004 have not showed up in force — so he has been reduced to muttering his own angry attacks on Obama rather than leaving others to do the dirty work. The result is that voters, who once liked the Arizonan for good reason, now disapprove of him personally in a way that would have seemed impossible six months ago.

It is far too early for post-mortems, of course, but it is also too late for a sudden flash of commanding brilliance from Davis, Schmidt and company. They’ve had plenty of time and money over the past few years to plan and execute. So what is their problem?

One theory, propounded by a very knowledgeable Republican consultant, is that none of McCain’s advisers has ever seen a presidential campaign from the top. Another theory is that even if they had somehow seen the panoramic view, so to speak, none of them possesses the intellectual capacity to formulate a serious theme or an order of battle. And then there is the possibility that none of this is really their fault — not only because it’s a very bad year for Republicans or that McCain is an ornery client, although both are true. The Republican Party, as constituted in the Bush years, may be so depleted ideologically and so discredited in governance that it simply has very little appeal beyond its shrinking base. What Is McCain’s Problem?