Can McCain Win Using Clinton Campaign Strategy?

>> Monday, August 4, 2008

In many ways, I think McCain is running the campaign that Clinton wishes she could have run. Clinton’s personal opinion of Obama at the end of the primary was, from all appearances, not very high. Clinton’s strategy was to paint Obama as an elitist, as someone too inexperienced to handle the job, as someone without substance. Just speeches, choir of angels, change you can Xerox, remember those? That was the original Obama mockery. Except in that case the demographics, the electorate was different. Can McCain win running the same race that Clinton ran?

Sadly, I am not the first to recognize the similarities of the two campaigns. John Heilemann who has gained some fame as the author of the Blog wide hit, The Low-Road Warrior, writes for New York Magazine in an earlier piece on the similarities between the two campaigns;

Yet it’s hard not to see the similarities between the chaos afflicting McCain-land now and what went on in Clinton-world during the primaries. In the former, like the latter, you have an outfit with no clear lines of authority, rife with elephantine egos and feuding factions that have been at each other’s throats for years, none with the slightest compunction about bearing their animosities (albeit anonymously) in the press. And in McCain, like Clinton, you have a candidate who not only tolerates but seems to encourage an atmosphere of anarchy—and who finds it difficult to fire anyone, no matter how incompetent.

If the commonalities ended here, they would hardly be worth noting. In presidential races, personnel and mechanics matter, but only on the margins. Yet in ways large and small, strategic and tactical, temperamental and attitudinal, the McCain campaign strikes me as having been cut from the same cloth as Hillary Clinton’s. Same story with the candidates themselves, in particular when it comes to their jaundiced perceptions of their rival.

… That Clinton and McCain would run similar races might seem odd. Their ideological differences are severe, and no one sane would ever call Clinton a maverick or McCain a feminist. But it’s also true that they share a view of politics and policy. They venerate the Senate as a noble institution, not as the imagination-deadening, soul-destroying hellhole that it is. They regard legislative experience, forging compromises in the trenches, as formative and indispensable. They see having national-security chops as a sine qua non for sitting in the Oval Office.

I think that that pretty much captures it. In many ways, I think it is a generational thing. Both Clinton and McCain have fought the same battles, if on opposite sides, for most of their lives. They endured the partisan wars of the 90’s and if there is a convergence in the tactics of the campaign it is for a very good reason, they use the same playbook. Clinton and the strategists who are running the McCain campaign operate on the same system of framing. They have the same attack based philosophy and desire to drive the election at the opponent putting them on the defensive.

Both the Clinton and McCain campaigns were Atwater School campaigns. Set the frame and then pound on it until it might as well be true. Given the similarities in the types of candidates, that they are it is not surprising to see McCain reprising the Clinton role. Clinton was setting herself up just like the Republican archetype character wise in order to neutralize the frames that were used against Kerry to great effect. Clinton actually burned out some of the attacks that McCain is using against Obama which is why we see few “empty suit” arguments. Instead, McCain has shifted to questioning Obama’s humbleness and modesty.

The arrogant attack is something that the Clinton camp was actually hinting at except in their case it usually was expressed as a notion of sexism. Gender politics came into play and whenever Obama did something that could be interpreted as an attack against the character of Clinton is was labeled by many as sexist. Against McCain those same types of actions are considered arrogant or patronizing because of McCain’s age and experience on the national stage. The same type of actions but interpreted through different lenses.

When there are two campaigns that are essentially trying to do the same things and the are both being similarly thwarted you would expect to see similar reactions. This is the case with the McCain and Clinton campaigns as the McCain campaign expresses similar grievances with Obama,

As was the case with Clinton, McCain’s dismissiveness of Obama often seems to cross the line into resentment—and seems to have two primary sources. The first revolves around Obama’s rock-star status, around the size of his crowds, which McCain’s aides are forever prone to mock. “Yeah, he’s got his ‘mine is bigger than yours’ thing, but when does that get to be too much?” one said to me recently. They point to his plans to deliver his nomination-acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in the Broncos’ stadium rather than the arena in Denver—along with the possibility that he might orate at the Brandenburg Gate this summer—as signs of raging hubris.

The second source of resentment owes to Obama’s treatment by the press, which the McCain people, as did the Clinton people, regard as slavishly biased. “Hillary got worse treatment from the press than anyone since Nixon,” says one McCain strategist. “Now it’s happening to us.”

“Enough with the speeches and the big rallies”, those were the words of Clinton before the Wisconsin Primary. Clinton also resented Obama’s ability to draw large crowds. The reason I ascribe to this is that both Clinton and McCain feel like it is finally their time to shine on the Big Stage of Presidential politics after being forced to linger in the shadows, McCain behind Bush and Hillary behind Bill. There is one glaring difference though and that is that this is not the Primary.

In the Democratic Primary the negative behavior and Republicanesque tactics were widely condemned. Clinton needed to cut into Obama’s solid base of support and the attacks she was trying to use were not allowing her to do this. She was limited in her other options though as she could not afford to alienate Obama voters lest she reenact the dreaded 1980 scenario. Clinton needed those voters in the future. McCain has no such restrictions placed on him. He is targeting a small group of non-affiliated voters in a few select states. Those voters are very different from the ones in a Democratic Primary and while they might say they do not like negative campaigning, they understand the practicality of it. The center voters are not idealists and if the contest gets dirty, they can easily rationalize it away as simply a function of how the world works.

Heilemann does try to convey a similarity that I disagree with and I think it is important to discuss it. He links the type of campaign that both Clinton and McCain have run as not the ones that they should have run. He talks about a projected McCain campaign that would have been about a reformer, about a maverick who would only seek one term.

…the idea had been to run on a handful of sweeping reformist goals—entitlement reform, ethics reform, immigration reform, spending reform, etc.—and position McCain as willing to put country ahead of personal political ambition

That would have been a tough McCain to beat so hopefully that guy is gone for good. What is not being distinguished here is that in Clinton’s case she did not run a campaign according to the conventional wisdom. As Heilemann notes about the Clinton campaign,

The emphasis on résumé, the willful avoidance of grappling with the desire for change so evident in the electorate, and, perhaps most problematic, the eschewal of big, bold, animating ideas and grand thematics.

The CW at the time was that Clinton needed to do those things and should have been doing them all along. By following Mark Penn and his lead, she was bucking the cw leading an unorthodox campaign. This is not the case for McCain. McCain is actually following the GOP conventional wisdom. He is doing it in such lockstep that it has damaged his brand. People recognize the familiar and worn patterns of his attack because they are the same ones trotted out against Kerry and Gore. McCain has fallen victim to CW where Clinton did not.

Both the Clinton and McCain camps made the race about Obama. When you attack constantly that tends to happen. The goal is to make Obama prove himself. They want to sow doubt and win as the default safe candidate just as Clinton tried to do. The McCain campaign will discover that Obama is more than up to the challenge. After all he already ran this race.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

  © Blogger template Sunset by 2008

Back to TOP