The McCain campaign is being taken to task by the press because their decision to hammer Barack Obama for cancelling a trip to a military hospital is not only mean-spirited but also is untrue. First Andrea Mitchell skewered a McCain surrogate on television and now the morning papers are joining the pile-on.
McCain should be ashamed to be trafficking in such lowball tactics. But, that is not the biggest problem facing his campaign. His bigger problem is the campaign’s furtiveness, the sense that they are changing message or tactics every six hours, that in their desperation to gain the initiative they are listening to any and all advice and trying anything. There is a perception that if you ran into McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, over coffee at Kramerbooks and suggested that McCain try campaigning in drag, before nightfall the candidate would appear in a three quarter sleeve, V-neck, kelly green, ballerina length number.
There is something pathetic about watching McCain’s political career reach such a predicament. He really was a maverick for years but in his effort to secure the GOP nomination, he had to back off some of his previous stances and embrace the party orthodoxy. Bad timing. The GOP stands at its lowest level in the polls since Watergate. Now that he would like to tack back to the center and re-establish his maverick bona fides, his previously frosty relationship with elements of the GOP base make that impossible to do so. As well, the base has grown accustomed to being coddled by the Rove-Bush strategy of building up from the base and they have trouble embracing the kind of centrist strategy that might work for McCain in November.
Another problem for McCain has to do with his personality, and that of his devoted aides. His frosty relationship with the base, like his cultivation of his maverick status, is in part the result of a certain air of moral superiority that attends McCain. He gets peeved when anyone questions him. He tends to demonize opponents. Go back and look at his debate exchanges with Mitt Romney: The disgust was palpable.
McCain roller coaster primary campaign reinforced these tendencies. After being pre-ordained the front-runner in 2007, his campaign crashed and burned, lost all its money, and fired most of its staff. They climbed back in to contention simply and solely on the strength of the candidate’s personality. For all the talk about a cult of personality surrounding Obama, it is the McCain camp where the cult of personality most influences the style of the campaign.
The voters use a variety of metrics to assess candidates for the presidency. More than any other office, they want to feel a personal connection with their president. They may agree on some issues, not others, and for other voters, issues matter less than a candidate’s character or experience. Furtiveness is not an attractive quality to discover in a would-be president. McCain should stop the negative ads, forget about how his positions poll, and run as himself. I don’t think it will win him the election, but at least he would survive with his self-respect in tact.
Michael Sean Winters