Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain's Implosion: 7 Reasons Why His Campaign Is in Crisis

As the presidential election day approaches, the race continues to shift to Democrat Barack Obama. Although Obama has almost always led McCain, following the Republican National Convention, the polls shifted significantly to McCain. But the electoral landscape has abruptly changed in recent weeks. There are several factors that explain this transition, some of which McCain can control, others that he cannot. But overall, his campaign seems unable to create traction. Here's why things have gone bad for McCain.

1. Economy
Clearly the economy has had a tremendous -- if not the most -- impact upon his campaign. McCain was leading in the polls until several large financial institutions imploded. After that time, things began to favor Obama. Historically, voters blame incumbents for poor economic conditions, rightfully or wrongfully. And they are clearly blaming McCain and the Republicans for the current state of affairs. I think both parties share the blame for the credit crisis; FactCheck.Org agrees. McCain has not effectively communicated this.

2. Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin has also caused problems for McCain. Although her addition to the ticket initially invigorated McCain's campaign, subsequent poor performances during media interviews and also (probably overdone) negative scrutiny by the media turned her into a liability. Several conservative commentators demanded that McCain remove her from the ticket. Palin, however, was able to alleviate many concerns voters had with her candidacy with a good performance at the Vice Presidential debate. Her favorable numbers improved dramatically. Despite this, concerns linger.

3. Republican Exhaustion
Republican exhaustion can also account for McCain's bad luck. Party dominance is cyclical at the national level. The Republicans have dominated the White House since 1964 -- which started at 44-year stretch with only 16 years in which a Democrat occupied the White House. Obama's change theme works very well with party exhaustion, and McCain has been unable to revitalize interest in Republicans.

4. Forgoing "Experience" Argument
McCain's campaign has also failed to take advantage of a few opportunities to shift the electorate. First, by picking Palin he essentially removed the "experience" theme from his campaign, which gave his campaign a coherent narrative.

5. Failure to Distinguish Himself from Bush
McCain has also failed to show that he is not Bush III and that he is a "maverick." While many members of my party would say that's because he is Bush III, like most things in politics, it's all about a narrative. For example, McCain recently proposed a mortgage plan, which Obama and the media have bashed. But he could have at least used that moment to say that he, unlike Bush and many others in his party, knows that government has a role in helping society. He could have also said that he, unlike Bush, is not afraid to reconsider his opinions about the role of government in society. Instead, his plan lacks a marketing narrative at all. Obama's plans, on the other hand, always do. Aided by the media in large part, he announces a "major policy speech" on any given subject and grabs headlines. I do not agree with Obama that McCain is erratic, but I do believe that without a narrative, voters cannot connect his proposals.

McCain and the Republican leadership could have agreed that he would go after Bush on a few important policy areas on which he has disagreed with Bush (e.g., environmental policy, corporate ethical reform, campaign finance, etc.). Instead, he has been stunningly silent on the details of his "maverickness," which makes the whole them ineffective.

6. Failure to Question Obama, via Biden, on Iraq
Although the economy has for a long time overshadowed the Iraq War in importance to voters, Obama continues to say that McCain exercised bad judgment voting for the war. McCain has responded primarily by arguing that his support of the surge and continued funding of the troops demonstrates that he can win a war (unlike Obama or Bush). But McCain has not emphasized Joe Biden's vote on the war at all, which seems to call into question Obama's war critique. Although Palin accused Biden of waffling on the war during the Vice Presidential debate, when Obama said McCain's war vote reflected poor judgment during the second presidential debate, McCain failed to mention Biden's vote at all, squandering an opportunity to question the sincerity of Obama's war critique.

7. Embedded Media
Finally, the media have made it more difficult for McCain and easier for Obama. I am not saying that the media have thrown the election to Obama. But I am acknowledging that for the most part, coverage favors Obama more. This began during the primaries, and Tina Fey brought the issue to national attention. Keith Olbermann's blood-faced rants, Chris Matthews's "tingly thighs," and the legion of opinion writers in the major papers (e.g., E.J. Dionne, Frank Rich, Dana Milbank, Maureen Dowd, and Eugene Robinson) who churned out weekly pro-Obama essays most likely helped shape public opinion regarding Obama. I am not saying that he does not deserve a great reputation, but that free publicity from authoritative media goes a long way towards constructing a positive image. By contrast, a litany of negative press (from these same influential media sources) can damage a candidate's reputation among voters.

The recent scuffle over McCain's mortgage plan provides a good example of likely media bias. The media have intensely scrutinized the plan -- as they should -- but they have primarily just reported Obama's objections to the plan. More importantly, they have not asked Obama what he would do to fix the problem. During the bailout discussions, the media questioned whether McCain had a plan or a role in the negotiations. The bailout actually authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase individual mortgages, but leaves it to the Secretary to devise a method for valuing the mortgages and assisting homeowners. McCain has at least given us a window into what he would do -- whether this is purely political or otherwise. Obama has not, and the media have not demanded that he do so. I also don't recall the media inquiring about Obama's role in the bailout negotiations.

This is not the first election in which the media have shown a candidate preference. They turned Gore into a laughingstock -- ridiculing him for "gaffes" that upon further examination, weren't gaffes at all. During my youth, they loved Reagan (the "Great Communicator") and bashed Carter on the economy and Iran, although much of the economic peril in the country resulted from factors outside of the control of the president, like the very dramatic (and almost overnight) increase in the price of oil. They never challenged voters on the relevance of Dukakis looking goofy in an Army tank and his ability to govern the nation. And beyond election campaigns, the media were literally "in the tank" with the White House during the Iraq War. If the media can embed themselves with the Bush administration to clamor for access, why wouldn't they do the same during a political campaign?

Can He Do It?
The odds are stacked against McCain at the moment, but some commentators say that he could still pull off a comeback. I am not convinced. I do not see an effective strategy by McCain, and I am not sure what he could do to neutralize the media. Calling them out as biased seems to have made them worse.


Merge Divide said...

I agree. Let's fight media bias together. There's been a lot of talk in the corporate media about a Obama/Ayers "association". Some claim that it's been a long time coming.

But I'm still waiting for John McCain to denounce his unwholesome relationship with G. Gordon Liddy. Where is the moral outrage, and who hears cries of conspiracy from the Right regarding mainstream media's suppression of this story?

Read the nasty details in THIS LINK to an article from May.

Here are some highlights:

“How close are McCain and Liddy? At least as close as Obama and Ayers appear to be. In 1998, Liddy's home was the site of a McCain fundraiser. Over the years, he has made at least four contributions totaling $5,000 to the senator's campaigns -- including $1,000 this year.

Last November, McCain went on his radio show. Liddy greeted him as "an old friend," and McCain sounded like one. "I'm proud of you, I'm proud of your family," he gushed. "It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great.
Which principles would those be? The ones that told Liddy it was fine to break into the office of the Democratic National Committee to plant bugs and photograph documents? The ones that made him propose to kidnap anti-war activists so they couldn't disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention? The ones that inspired him to plan the murder (never carried out) of an unfriendly newspaper columnist?

Liddy was in the thick of the biggest political scandal in American history -- and one of the greatest threats to the rule of law. He has said he has no regrets about what he did, insisting that he went to jail as "a prisoner of war."

All this may sound like ancient history. But it's from the same era as the bombings Ayers helped carry out as a member of the Weather Underground. And Liddy's penchant for extreme solutions has not abated.

In 1994, after the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, he gave some advice to his listeners: "Now if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests. ... Kill the sons of bitches."

He later backed off, saying he meant merely that people should defend themselves if federal agents came with guns blazing. But his amended guidance was not exactly conciliatory: Liddy also said he should have recommended shots to the groin instead of the head. If that wasn't enough to inflame any nut cases, he mentioned labeling targets "Bill" and "Hillary" when he practiced shooting.”


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

So we do agree that there is media bias? Thanks for the link.

Merge Divide said...

All media is biased, and it cuts both ways. The trick is to take in as much as you can and try to find a balance. I also try to rely on first-hand accounts and give people the benefit of the doubt that they mean what they say, until they prove otherwise. I haven't found that a common quality in John McCain over the last several years (especially during this campaign), but I have in Obama.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Merge divide: As I said in my article -- Democrats and Republicans have been victims of this. I specifically cited to Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.

Merge Divide said...

I acknowledge that. Still you rattled off a list of media figures that have been largely pro-Obama and omitted the litany of extreme Right media figures who have been shilling for McCain/Palin and rapaciously smearing Obama:

A quick list includes-

Rush Limbaush, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, the entire FOX News staff, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, Melanie Rodgers, Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Mark Steyn,Robert Spencer,Glenn Beck, William Kristol, Jerome Corsi, Monica Crowley, Hugh Hewitt, Karl Rove, The National Review, The Weekly Standard, Tucker Carlson, Kevin James, The New York Daily News, Rich Lowry, Pat Buchanan, Stanley Kurtz, Michael Reagan, Lee Rodgers, Greta Van Sustern, Jonah Goldberg, Tom Gross, Westbrook Pegler, NewsBusters, Matt Drudge, The Boston Globe, Michael Barone, Glenn Reynolds, Tom Sullivan, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Newsmax, Front Page, Ann Coulter, Steve Doocy, John Gibson, Dennis Miller, many Christian Right pulpit political preachers, and a host of local AM and FM talk radio hacks.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well, my list was not a list of "extreme" people. I listed folks from the Washington Post and the New York Times, places where we normally turn for unbiased reporting. These same papers, however, were embedded in the military and admittedly failed to publish or pushed to secondary pages articles critical of the war. I do not trust the mainstream media due to their desire for profits and access above all else. At least the extreme people do not pretend to be unbiased. People do not go to Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove or Tony Snow for objective political analysis.

Also, I have been particularly bothered that even liberals have been favoring bias -- against other liberals! Paul Krugman, for example, was blasted for scrutinizing Obama's and Clinton's healthcare and economic packages and preferring Clinton's. I was stunned. An Emory political science professor was especially critical - saying that Krugman "attacked" Obama. For an academic to characterize academic discourse as an "attack" is dangerous.

Merge Divide said...

Well... you did have Olbermann and Matthews. So I thought, what the hell. Anyway, they somehow let Bill Kristol write for the Times... and there are plenty of people that go to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The National Review for "serious" political analysis.

"I do not trust the mainstream media due to their desire for profits and access above all else."

I'm completely with you on that one.

But why, in this political climate, would you be "particularly bothered that even liberals have been favoring bias". Are "liberals" somehow above the temptation to be validated?

BTW- I'm a bit biased in favor of Krugman, so I can't speak objectively to the criticism coming from the left regarding his endorsement.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Why am I concerned with liberals endorsing -- or even denying -- media bias? I think I may have addressed this in my original post (or some other one), but there are a couple of reasons. First, media bias has hurt liberals more than anyone else in presidential elections in the last few series. A lot of hay is made about Kerry not responding to Swiftboat, but where were the media? By contrast, every ounce of information, real or imagined, about Palin receives prime attention. Why? Because the media hate Palin. But if they had been as careful with Bush during his first and second cycles -- and less abusive towards Gore and Kerry -- perhaps we would not have had eight years of Republicans. Also, if they had scrutinized the war arguments, rather than clamoring to ride in the tanks, maybe we could have avoided that senseless invasion.

Second, endorsing bias among liberals prevents us from even holding our own candidates to good standards. Take the Krugman critique of Obama. Rather than trying to understand Krugman's argument and seeing whether we should demand that Obama reform his proposals, liberals bashed Krugman. Obama received a free pass. Also, Obama lambasted Clinton over NAFTA, but very few media outlets covered (and certainly they didn't do so with much passion) the fact that Obama says he would not seek to repeal NAFTA and that he also voted for trade pacts while in the Senate. Light coverage of Obama clouds the choices that liberals make (Obama v. Clinton v. Edwards, etc) and it prevents liberals from demanding more of our own candidates because the information voters need remains undisclosed or only available to the most diligent and critical readers. This is ultimately and unhelpful state of affairs. I started this blog to open up a more critical dialogue. Thanks for adding to it.

Merge Divide said...

One other thing I wanted to mention... I believe the MSM was complicit in both the build-up and the break-down of Sarah Palin. After her GOP convention speech, they were salivating all over themselves, hyping a standard-fare hit speech into a GRAND SLAM!, and anointing her the future of the Republican Party.

Of course there was a bit of a backlash, and when McCain finally released her to a few softball pitchers, the expectations were that there would be a simple continuation of the myth-making. Gibson and Couric found themselves in the unpleasant position of having to do the vetting for Palin. They were in a lose-lose position.

Then after the VP debate, they fell all over themselves once again to give her high marks for meeting low expectations.

Ultimately, I place the blame for whatever left-leaning media bias exists in the MSM squarely at John McCain's feet. He had a self-professed ongoing love affair with them for years. His war with them started when he began to make himself (and his running mate) unavailable to the press. He didn't have a press conference for something like 40 days (and Palin still hasn't had a real one). Sure he was angry because Palin had embarrassed him... but he dug his own grave by acting peevish. And his campaign displayed just as much animosity to the MSM. Remember that they said they'd give access to Palin when the press was ready to be respectful and deferential? That was a terrible media strategy.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

MD -- I don't think it's fair to admit that media are biased but then blame McCain. The media might indeed hate him for being "cold" to them, but that does not explain why they have been pretty supportive of Obama from the very beginning of the Democratic primaries. Also, I thought we agreed that bias in the media has always existed. McCain is just this year's victim. If Obama wins, he could be the next one.

Merge Divide said...

We did agree that all media are biased. But I didn't agree that all media has been biased for Obama.

Candidates for political office reap what they sow. I have no problem saying that McCain earned the enmity of a lot of the media during the past month... not by being "cold", but by being unavailable.

As far as the primaries are concerned... I can't speak to that since I wasn't following along very closely. I am not a Democrat, so there was no reason for me to tune in for the Obama/Clinton spectacle.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

A couple of things. First, agreeing that media are biased does not require that you agree that "all" are biased in favor of Obama. If media bias is a constant, then it's hard to blame any candidate for it. I watched the Democratic primaries, and there as a lot of bias. Some of the same media that trashed Clinton as a racist "dared" her not to campaign for Obama and now celebrate the fact that she is.

Second, I do not accept the theory "you reap what you sow" in the area of journalism -- particularly with respect to one of the most important issues journalists cover: the presidential election. Professionals often have to rise above petty disagreements. Lawyers have difficult clients, but still have to give them zealous advocacy. Doctors may have patients who continue drinking, smoking, eating fatty foods, but they still must treat their heart disease. Accountants have clients who fail to document their transactions, but they do not drop them when it's time to file tax returns. The fact that a journalist could/might apply a "reap what you sow" attitude only confirms that they are not objective in the first place, because if they were objective, personality would not matter in terms of political coverage. Bush was accessible too. I guess this is why they didn't question "compassionate conservatism" and why they clamored to ride in the tanks in Iraq.

Merge Divide said...

I agree that the media is not "objective", and I maintain it as an impossibility. I think the concept of "unbiased media" is a myth. It's all a matter of degree, and I refuse to generalize about such a broad subject.

So yeah, I think that to whatever degree McCain is experiencing bias in certain segments of the media, he has to own at least a portion of it, along with his awful media relations team (I emphasize that it's NOT a matter of "personality"). If you make your opposition to the MSM part of your campaign strategy (which McCain/Palin has) then you are courting misery.

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