January 4, 2009

The litany of McCain errors - Part 5

John McCain always had an uphill battle to beat Barack Obama. But he didn't do himself any favors. In fact he made mistakes that ensured Obama would win the election. Money, strategy, demographics and branding all were areas the McCain team contributed to Obama's win. There's one more area to look at; communication.


Communication is a tricky beast. John McCain started off with a charisma deficit versus Barack Obama. Charisma makes effective communication a simpler task, so it's a good place to start analyzing. Charisma and celebrity are tactical assets Democrats have relied on often in recent times; Obama, Franken, Caroline Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and even John F. Kennedy are examples that the Democratic party relies on charisma and/or celebrity to sell it's agenda. It's obvious the agenda doesn't sell as well without those assets. The Democrat agenda is a flawed agenda, so minus the packaging, it just doesn't sell. Some very uncharismatic examples prove the point - Dukakis, Mondale, and Kerry .

On the other hand Republicans since Reagan have typically suffered a charisma deficit. Neither Bush president was particularly charismatic, and Dole and McCain were as charismatic as, well, Gerald Ford. Reagan, the Great Communicator, was the exception of the last 40 years. He had charisma, he had wit, and he had celebrity. On top of which, he had the conservative agenda to back him up. It's no wonder he had electoral landslides twice. But all executive nominees since Reagan have suffered for the lack of these traits. Even Bush 43 - he had other assets - Karl Rove, an energized base wanting to end the Clinton era, a war mandate (in 2004).

Charisma does not make for a great President. But it does make the opportunity to overcome a hostile legislative branch more feasible. It does make communicating to the American people easier. It does make election easier. In 2008 charisma is not something McCain did wrong. You can't fake charisma and to have expected that of McCain would have been an unfair expectation.

But it was something Republicans did wrong in the nominating process. Every candidate in the field from Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney to Fred Thompson to Ron Paul had more charisma than McCain. He did try to manufacture some personality based charisma in the video during the convention, but it wasn't enough. The error here was primary voters getting stuck on Iraq and not looking at the nominee overall, including his lack of ability to connect. Next time we need to be sure that we nominate a communicator. We kept hearing about his salesmanship at town hall meetings, but it didn't materialize, and if it ever was there, they should have played that game much harder with or without Obama joining him.

So in part, McCain was to blame in communication because he did not play to his own supposed strength enough. A big part of communication involves having vision. This is where conservative principles come into play. Our principles guide us. McCain did not have a vision outside of energy independence. That may have been a good vision but it was partial and it was beaten out by hope and change. Vision goes beyond policy considerations. It needs to be something as broad as Obama's message. For us it means American strength at home (economically and socially) and abroad (national security).

But further it needs to be distilled down into something as simple as hope and change (which was actually pretty weak) or restoring American pride or being a shining city on a hill. McCain embodied none of that. He didn't need to embody it but he failed to project any of it. Nuclear power might be a good policy position but it is not a vision. America being the Great Bastion of Freedom, now that's a vision.

Beyond that, there were a number of communication problems McCain could not afford. In early July an article appeared on Politico that summed up a good deal of the McCain problems. The numerous references to the article below are a tribute to how precise it was in detailing the McCain issues. At the time there was sufficient hope for conservatives that the mistakes through June were ones that could be overcome. But the issues that existed through June represent issues that existed through the entire campaign, or were lost opportunities that could not be regained.

“It’s not just message or not having just one single meta-theme to compete
with Obama,” said a veteran Republican strategist with close ties to McCain’s
top advisers. “It’s not just fundraising, which is mediocre. And it’s not even
just organization, which is [just] starting or nonexistent in many states.”

“McCain’s campaign seems not to have a game plan. I don’t see a consistent
message,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. “As
someone who has run campaigns, this campaign is not running smoothly. But none
of this matters if they get their act together.”

Whether its strategy or communication, not having a game plan is a serious, serious flaw. In a hostile environment McCain had to be prepared to overcome obstacles that Obama was given a pass on. The Mainstream Media were willing to give Obama a pass on questionable statements. Remember George Stephanopoulos helping Obama out on his mistaken statement about his 'Muslim faith'? An innocent mistake, but it shows the lengths to which a partisan press corp would go for Obama. Obama had a home court advantage, and McCain had to have a plan, and some guiding principles to navigate in that environment because the same passes would in fact become points of critique for McCain.

The absence of an overall communication strategy was a problem, but so was internal communication with the 'teams'.

“...I think [campaign manager] Rick Davis and his team did not have
an understanding of how the grass-roots, organizational part of the party works.
They did not use what the [Republican National Committee] had done, or how
groups like the [National Rifle Association] could have helped the McCain
campaign locally. “They are just now opening up campaign operations in most
states. The RNC was ready to go in most states in March,” the state chairman
continued, listing off grievances ranging from the campaign's “dictating” the
members of various RNC committees to the state party's having been “threatened”
that, though McCain “couldn’t afford not to play in our state,” the campaign
would not “recommend us for resources” if the state party did not abide by its
requests. "

and this;

The McCain campaign had not included some key state chairmen in
political planning, and a few were anxious over what they said
were lax swing state preparations. “Rather than trying to pull me in and
make me an intricate part of the team they just told me what they wanted
done, and said if you don’t play ball we won’t play ball,” one state
chairman said.

Communication is a two way street - not listening to feedback, not leveraging groups that want to help, and dictating direction, especially without a clear strategy guiding it, is not an optimal way to operate. In fact, it's stupid.

The July article also mentions the lack of attack communications.

One frequent criticism surrounds the widely held perception that the campaign has failed to define or convey a consistent narrative against Obama — something that many Republicans insist should have begun right after Obama captured the nomination. “What’s the political strategy when you allow your opponent, who has just had a grueling four months, time to catch their breath, regroup, fundraise and start to define himself?” asked a Republican strategist who helped lead a past presidential campaign. “It’s politics 101.”

Several consultants from past GOP campaigns were even more frustrated by
what they viewed as a reluctance to attack — textbook strategy for an underdog.
One GOP consultant said that if McCain wanted to define Obama as “too
inexperienced, too liberal and too risky” then “why wouldn’t your message every
day have something to do with these three problems?”

Whether attacking Obama was right or not is a matter for much debate. But the reluctance to attack was palpable and frustrating. Leading up to the third debate, followers were imploring McCain to attack Obama. He wanted to remain above the fray. That's no way to win an election. Case in point; November 4th, 2008.

And of course, Politico mentions consistency of message;

Other insiders expressed frustration that there is a lack of consistency in
defining McCain as well, pointing to the recent launch of an ad touting his
challenge to the president’s position on global warming — at the same time that
McCain traveled to Texas to advocate lifting the federal moratorium on offshore
oil drilling. “It’s hard to see a thematic message,” said another GOP strategist
who has worked on past presidential races. Several Republicans said it remains
unclear whether McCain will run on experience or attempt to redefine Obama’s
message of change. Some critics cite a litany of minor but nevertheless
maddening incidents as evidence that the McCain campaign is failing to execute
the basic blocking and tackling maneuvers that mark successful teams.

A litany. I thought that was my word. Apparently others have seen the same thing. It had to be one of the worst run campaigns I've seen in my lifetime. Obama, for all his supposed genius, did not run a brilliant campaign. He ran an adequate general election campaign. Granted his primary victory was very well conceived and executed, and it was against a much tougher political opponent. McCain ran a campaign that was poorly planned or executed or both. It speaks to his potential as a Commander in Chief. Yes he would have been better than Obama because of his philosophical near-alignment with conservatives. But he would not have been a great president. He was, and is, not a great conservative. He is barely conservative and he would have been an adequate President, certainly better than the alternative.

But his campaign failings serve as a reminder, a warning to future GOP campaigns. Campaigning is war. It is better to follow Sun Tsu's teachings than McCain's campaign. Particularly some specific points;

  • If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
  • Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.
  • the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.
  • Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans, the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces, the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field, and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.
  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

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