Several weeks ago, the McCain campaign reinvented itself by sloughing off some deadwood, replacing incompetents with pros from the Bush-Cheney team of 2004, and overall, tried to bring a sense of order out of the chaos.
McCain brought in proven winner, Steve Schmidt, to ride herd on the new outfit and tighten up message delivery which had become so scattershot that Republican politicos warned the candidate that he risked everything unless some discipline was applied to the process of organizing and promoting what the candidate was trying to accomplish.
So far, the results are very mixed. There are signs that the campaign is indeed more organized, more focused especially in developing a coherent set of issues that resonate with the voters.
But the message machine is still broken – especially when the McCain team goes on the attack.
Marc Ambinder talked to former McCain campaign confidante John Weaver who was not impressed by the campaign’s latest efforts in going after Obama:
With the release today of a McCain television ad blasting Obama for celebrity preening while gas prices rise, and a memo that accuses Obama of putting his own aggrandizement before the country, Weaver said he’s had “enough.”
The ad’s premise, he said, is “childish.”
“John’s been a celebrity ever since he was shot down,” Weaver said. “Whatever that means. And I recall Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush going overseas and all those waving American flags.”
Weaver remains in contact with senior McCain strategists and, for a while early this year, regularly talked to McCain.
The strategy of driving up Obama’s negatives “reduces McCain on the stage,” Weaver said.
“For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness.”
He added: “There is legitimate mockery of a political campaign now, and it isn’t at Obama’s. For McCain’s sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop.”
I saw the ad and wondered, wtf? What does Brittney Spears have to do with presidential politics? The ad seemed petulant, as if the candidate were complaining that it was unfair that Obama was more popular than McCain.
I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to put it; McCain’s campaign is still foundering, sinking slowly beneath the waves as the Good Ship Obama’s wake continues to slosh over the gunnwales on its way by.
What is the number one issue on people’s minds these days? The price of fuel outstrips everything else in importance. Not only do gas prices speak to people’s fears for the future but energy dominates the voter’s own perception of their economic well being. Every single day, we should hear from the McCain campaign a single, boring, refrain; just drill, baby! The polls show overwhelming support for doing just that. Obama is on the wrong side of that divide and has in fact, led with his chin on this issue on a number of occasions begging McCain to knock his block off and score big.
Case in point, Obama now tells people to keep their tire pressure up and everything will be just fine:
There are things you can do individually, though, to save energy. Making sure your tires are properly inflated — simple thing. But we could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling — if everybody was just inflating their tires? And getting regular tune-ups? You’d actually save just as much!
Ed Morrissey tears into this simple minded sophistry with relish:
Er, no it couldn’t. The Green River oil shale formation could produce at least 800 billion barrels of oil alone, enough for over 100 years at our current rate of consumption (20 million barrels per day). Would inflating our tires eliminate every single drop of oil we use? Of course not! Nor would it save any significant amount at all. Tire inflation could improve gas mileage by about 3%, which would relate to about 600,000 barrels of oil a day at the most absurdly optimistic extrapolation.
Ed points out later that most cars made in the last 25 years don’t require a “tune-up” every 5,000 miles. Most manufacturers recommend a tune up every 100,000 miles.
But the point isn’t tune-ups and inflated tires. The point is getting more energy. And Obama and the Democrats are dead set against that. While everyone has figured out that drilling won’t completely solve the main problem of energy independence, it’s a nice stop gap measure and has the advantage of a relatively short turnaround time. It might take a decade for alternative energy sources to begin to make a dent in our oil usage. But the effects of drilling – if begun now – can be measured in months.
But we don’t hear this from the McCain camp. This should be the dominant message coming from the campaign. Instead, we get “Obama the celebrity” or “Out of touch Obama” which is a silly claim to make from a guy who can’t even operate a personal computer.
The Fix interviewed several GOP strategists who seem less than impressed with the way the campaign’s message is being delivered:
Sigh,” emailed one senior party strategist who later added: “Every Obama ad since his announcement has fit nicely into a theme, an argument. McCain ads are just catch as catch can, one wild swing at Obama after another. Their increasing bitterness reflects a campaign that is more about some sort of therapeutic frustration venting for the staff than any coherent strategy to elect McCain. It’s unprofessional to the core.”
Another high-level party operative grumbled: “It seems like they are talking to the press pack, not voters.”
That first critique may be a bit harsh but it speaks to the confusion the campaign is experiencing in trying to figure a way to dent Obama’s armor. Right now, the playing field is still wildly tilted in Obama’s favor – partially because many voters still see him as the agent of change and partly because despite some questions being raised by the media lately, Obama still enjoys overwhelming press support – so much so that while Obama’s press was outstanding on his recent trip abroad, the candidate received a dead cat bounce in the polls. The race is where it was before the trip even happened.
This may sound like good news for McCain except he doesn’t appear capable in taking advantage of it. It is Obama who is his own worst enemy and it looks like it will continue to be that way:
Obama seems to have everything going for him. A fresh face. A smooth, cadenced speaking style suited for TV. A message of change at a time when Americans historically favor change, after one party holds the White House for two terms. And after several convictions of GOP legislators.
Obama’s got tons of money. An attractive family. Energized followers. A media that’s curious about the new guy and tired of….
...the dogged old POW one. High gas prices, a poor housing market, a two-front war ongoing and a slightly sagging economy, all of which should help political challengers. Not to mention an unpopular incumbent president.
A lead’s a lead, but political strategists are puzzled.
As many analysts have been saying for months, the race is Obama’s to lose. But those analysts didn’t take into account such a feeble effort coming from the McCain campaign. McCain has to do something positive, say something about the future rather than these constant “gotcha” charges that only play into Obama’s “new politics” theme and his contention that McCain is part of the old way of doing things.
Can the ship be righted in time to catch and defeat Obama? I am guessing not. The problem is apparently partly due to McCain himself:
Sen. John McCain last week delivered one of his sharpest critiques yet of Sen. Barack Obama’s Iraq policies, carefully reading a prepared speech that accused his Democratic rival of failing the commander-in-chief test and promoting ideas that would force American troops to “retreat under fire.”
But just hours after his crisp performance, the Republican presidential candidate blurred his own message with an offhand comment to a television interviewer that Obama’s proposal for a 16-month time frame for removing combat troops from Iraq might be a “pretty good timetable.” That seemed to run counter to his attempts to cast Obama as naive on foreign policy, and it sent his aides scrambling.
And there you have the McCain campaign in a nutshell. For a former military officer, McCain appears to lack the discipline necessary to win the race.
It may come to walling McCain off from the press – fewer avails and press conferences. But whatever is done must be done quickly. Time is running out and the Obama campaign is too smart, too well funded, and too motivated to allow for the kind of weak, unfocused attacks on him that the McCain camp has tried this past fortnight.