Friday Talking Points [53] -- Why McCain Is Losing, And Why Democrats Shouldn't Say So

John McCain is losing the race for the White House. Now, this doesn't mean he has already lost it -- we've still got to go vote, after all. I'll cover that aspect in the Talking Points section, but anyone looking at the polls or an electoral map these days would be hard-pressed to come to any other conclusion than: McCain is losing. The question that will obsess many in the media post-election will be: Why? So I'd like to offer my read of why McCain is losing. Call it a pre-mortem. Or maybe that should be pre-post-mortem, I'm not sure.

But what I am sure of is being able to identify the disastrous decisions McCain and his campaign have made (so far... we still have 11 days to go...). I've thought about this for a while now, but didn't want to publish it until I was sure it was too late for the McCain campaign to somehow fix any of these mistakes.

But I feel we've now come to that point, so I've identified the following seven major reasons that McCain may get swamped on Election Night, which I share now to see how many of them become media themes in about two weeks.

[This will make for a longer-than-usual intro here, so I promise the other parts of the column will be brief to make up for it.]


The Karl Rove team

The first disastrous decision McCain made happened a few months ago. He hired two acolytes of Karl Rove to take over his campaign, Steve Schmidt in particular. It's easy to remember the point in time when these two took over -- in three words: Paris Hilton ad (which came out almost immediately after they took charge). These guys thought they knew how to use the patented Rovian™ campaign playbook to easily defeat that lightweight with the funny name on the other side. This single action led to further disaster, as evidenced by the next two (and possibly three) items here.


Shutting out the media

Almost the first thing the Rovians did was to cut off almost all access to the campaign by the national media. Up until this point, McCain famously befriended media types, letting them ride on the Straight Talk Express bus with him and chat with him for hours, on the record. It got to the point where reporters were actually running out of questions to ask, because these sessions were so lengthy. This led to media bias for McCain, as I documented back in FTP [36] (and was roundly criticized for by some). But suddenly, the chummy chats with the ink-stained wretches halted. Press conferences became rare. Local media was always favored over national media. They even kicked a prominent national reporter off the campaign plane because they didn't like his coverage -- an act of sacrilege in the world of journalism. The Straight Talk Express became the No Talk Express.

And the media reacted. They started actually reporting the negative things about McCain's campaign (like his almost-daily gaffes), instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt and ignoring such (as they largely had been doing up to this point). Whenever they did actually get a scrap of access to McCain, the questions got a lot tougher. This has been a cumulative effect over the last few months, but (on all but the biased right-wing media) it had a definite effect overall in the coverage. Reporters didn't start viciously attacking McCain, but they did start to actually critically report on his campaign.


Tactics versus strategy

McCain, in the first debate (I believe, could have been the second), tried to score a point off Obama by telling him he didn't understand the difference between tactics and strategy. He was speaking militarily (about... you guessed it... the "surge"), where "tactics" and "strategy" have precise and different meanings. But his entire general election campaign has proven that he himself does not know the difference. For those of you who (like me) haven't gone to West Point or Annapolis, let me be clear: tactics are small-bore battlefield plans and actions; while strategy is the "big picture" campaign for winning. D-Day was a tactic, for instance, while retaking France was a strategy.

But the Rovians' advice meant continually missing the forest, while focusing in on tree after tree. In "The World According To Rove," a political campaign is all about what is called "winning the news cycle." Which means that each and every day, you've got to get out there with some gimmick or some outrageous statement or stunt -- that is media-friendly -- and you will "win" that day's news, because your video will get played more prominently than your opponent's.

Now, lest we forget, there were some spectacular tactical victories during the last few months from McCain. But even the best of these, when viewed strategically, fell flat. And if you asked Republicans today what the overall "theme" of the McCain campaign is, they would scratch their heads and offer up whatever the latest tactic has been ("Um... McCain hates Bill Ayers?"). Because there has been no McCain theme to speak of. Which leads us to the biggest tactical triumph of them all....


The Palin pick

Sarah Palin's ascension to vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party is a tale that still hasn't been fully told. The New Yorker recently ran a story which suggests that at the center of that pick was, once again, the Rovians. But however it happened, it remains the prime example of a brilliant tactic that may have actually been the biggest strategic reason why McCain is losing. Partly because the McCain campaign quite obviously didn't vet her well enough, but also due to the fact that McCain has run a campaign that is entirely backwards from normal. The conventional campaign wisdom is to run to your base in the primaries, and run to the center in the general election. McCain did the opposite. He ran as an aisle-reaching-across centrist to get his party's nomination, and then (with the Palin pick) ran hard to the right, in an obvious effort to excite his base. Because the Rovian strategy has always been: turn out the base, and pull in just enough independents to win.

For a while, it seemed to be working. Of course, this was also during the Republicans' convention week, so it was hard to separate out the normal convention bounce in the polls from what was going on with Palin. The media focused on the fact that crowds were actually showing up at McCain rallies once again, in impressively large numbers. The base was delighted with Palin. They were downright enthusiastic, something McCain had never quite managed on his own.

But strategically, it started falling apart almost immediately. After marveling at the crowd size for a few days, something became painfully obvious -- Palin was merely repeating her convention speech over and over again, with very few changes. Sure, it had been a great speech (if you're a Republican, that is) at the convention, but after a week or so it was wearing a little thin. And if John McCain had shut the door on the media regarding his interviews; when it came to keeping Palin away from the media, he not only shut the door, he barred it, locked the keep, lowered the portcullis, raised the drawbridge, released the moat monster, and started boiling oil on the parapets.

This lack of access caused howls in the media. Finally, McCain relented and she did one softball interview on Fox News (what a surprise!), and then selected Katie Couric for her first "real" interview, likely assuming Katie was going to give a lightweight interview. This was a tactical error. Katie's interviews of Palin have been the best journalism on the entire campaign, because she gave Palin enough rope to hang herself, figuratively. And that's when Palin (and McCain) lost the demographics which will decide this election: moderates and women. It became hard for Republicans to aver with a straight face that Sarah Palin could possibly be president, should something happen to McCain.


Throwing his own theme under the bus

There's a secondary reason why Palin's pick may have doomed the McCain campaign. Because they used to have a strategy, and they used to have a theme. It was: "McCain is experienced, Obama is a lightweight." It was, it should be noted, the same theme Hillary Clinton tried. But Hillary, despite doing better than expected later in the game, wound up losing to Obama. So the decision must have been made to change the theme entirely. The problem was, there was no new theme to take its place.

For something like four or five months (after McCain knew he would be the nominee), McCain had been hammering home that McCain equaled experience, while Obama equaled risky, untried, dangerous newness. Republican voters had heard this message for months, and even independent voters were listening. Then McCain picked Palin. Which, in one fell swoop, absolutely destroyed his own campaign's theme. Because, "executive experience" aside, if you could seriously see Sarah Palin in the Oval Office, then it was pretty hard to say that Obama was too much of a lightweight.

Again, if they had immediately replaced this theme with another storyline, and then stuck to it they might have been able to pull it off. But by undermining McCain's own strongest argument with his vice presidential pick, and then never settling on a new theme, he may have put the race out of reach.


Old news

This is just a minor thing, so I'll get it out of the way before I get to the biggest reason McCain is losing. McCain, when speaking (especially when ad-libbing, which he loves to do), keeps reinforcing his own age over and over again, and he doesn't even realize he's doing it. Every cultural reference, for instance, comes from the 1970s or before. Except maybe the required genuflection before Saint Ronald of Reagan, which is only 20 years old. But almost every reference he comes up with to illustrate a point in a town meeting is anywhere from two decades old to ancient. This is a subtle thing, but just points out to viewers over and over again that he doesn't really represent the future, but rather a mistily-remembered past. And when you are a 72-year-old candidate, this isn't really helpful.


Black Wednesday

One Wednesday, a few weeks back, John McCain hit the trifecta in the Campaign Idiocy sweepstakes, which may ultimately deny him the White House. The financial crisis was unfolding, and John McCain announced he was (1) "suspending his campaign," (2) pulling out of the first debate with Obama unless the bailout bill had passed by Friday, and (3) cancelling his appearance on David Letterman's show.

I'm still not sure what order to put those in, in terms of importance. And no, that's not a joke. Now, at the time, it probably sounded like a real good idea to the McCain camp. John McCain, putting "country first," rushes back to Washington to knock some heads together and get something done -- by reaching across the aisle and putting the American people first.

The only problem was, it didn't quite turn out that way. First, Dave Letterman found out that when McCain had phoned him only an hour or so before taping to tell him he was rushing back to Washington, what McCain really meant was "rushing back to Washington... sometime tomorrow." Dave was insulted, and gave one of the most scathing performances I have ever seen a late night comedy host give. But it didn't end there. Because later in the show, while interviewing Keith Olbermann -- who, incidentally, filled in as Dave's guest by blowing off Craig Ferguson, who really lit into McCain an hour later -- Dave's folks found the CBS news feed of Katie Couric interviewing McCain while Dave's show was still being taped. They ran a few segments of the live feed, while Dave yelled at the image on the screen. Keith Olbermann was actually the calm one during the interview, and the one trying to make jokes instead of ranting.

That was on the first night. In the next few days, it came out that McCain was doing nothing but grandstanding. First off, the people blocking the legislation weren't even in his house of Congress, and secondly, they were in his own party. And McCain, after saying he didn't want to "phone it in," wound up doing exactly that -- from across the Potomac River, over in Virginia, where his campaign headquarters are located. McCain looked pathetic during the entire exercise.

And then he meekly ended this string of embarrassments by announcing that he would, after all, attend the first debate.

David Letterman, it is worth noting, spent the next three or four weeks mercilessly attacking McCain, every single night. McCain finally did do a "mea culpa" appearance, but the damage had been done. McCain looked erratic throughout the entire Black Wednesday episode, thrashing around like a loose cannon rolling around a warship. And that's when Obama's poll numbers began to climb. They haven't stopped climbing since.


So, sorry for taking up so much time here analyzing McCain's campaign, but since there will be no Friday Talking Points column next week (sorry about that, it will be pre-empted by our annual Hallowe'en column, due to the vagaries of the calendar), I had to get it out before the actual election.

But since it took so long, let's quickly hand out the awards, and then get to cautioning Democrats not to appear too cocky before Election Day.


There was much to be impressed with in the Democratic world last week. The week started off with Barack Obama announcing he had raised $150,000,000 in just one month. That's not just impressive, it is stunning, since it almost triples the record he had set earlier. All those talking heads who warned of dire consequences if Obama broke his pledge to use public financing (Obama, quite rightly, chose winning over keeping his pledge) should now be eating a heaping plate of crow.

And then there were the thousands of people who donated to Democratic candidate Elwyn Tinklenberg, after the Republican incumbent in a House seat in Minnesota went on Chris Matthews' "Hardball" and apparently called for a return to McCarthyism. Over one million dollars (an absolute fortune in a House race) poured in within hours to Tinklenberg -- from all over the country -- and now the polls have actually swung to the Democrat. I've long been an advocate of making officeholders pay for stupid remarks in precisely this fashion, so I heartily salute each and every donor who sent money in.

But the real, hands-down winner of this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award is none other than Tina Fey. I have to admit, I'm not 100% sure she's a Democrat, as I've never heard her publicly say so, but I'm about 99% sure and that's good enough for me. Tina Fey has absolutely eviscerated Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live" for the past month, including last week's installment with Palin appearing live herself. I still say when people look back at this election, the memorable Palin line will be one she never actually said -- Tina Fey's "I can see Russia from my house!"

It should be noted that this is above and beyond the call of duty for Fey. She's not even an SNL cast member anymore, and has her own sitcom, "30 Rock." So it's not like she had to do it or anything. But because she stepped up to the plate, gave SNL its best ratings in a decade, and gave people a real reason to watch the show again, she has earned her Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. She brought funny back to SNL, and she also brought back something that's been missing from the show for even longer -- relevance.

Plus, before Sarah Palin even entered the picture, Tina Fey made glasses sexy again for women. OK, that has nothing to do with the award, but I just had to say that. Ahem. In any case, well done Tina Fey!

[You can try to congratulate Tina Fey on the "30 Rock" website, as there's an"Ask Tina" page, but I couldn't figure out how to actually ask her a question from it. Anyway, if you've got a better link to let her know you appreciate her efforts, let me know and I'll post it here.]


There wasn't a lot to choose from for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week, I have to say. Which is good news.

I mean, I cringed when I heard what Joe Biden had said recently about guaranteeing the world will test Obama in the first six months, but it didn't really rise to the level of disappointing. Likewise, my reaction to the news that Attorney General Mukasey had been subpoenaed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy was: Too little, too late! If he had really pushed Bush's Justice Department, then there would be multiple cases in front of federal judges right now, doing battle over weighty separation-of-powers issues. But because Leahy has allowed the White House to endlessly stall, they have successfully run out the clock. So, while in a normal week (say, a year and a half ago, or even nine months ago), this would have won him a MIDOTW, this week I actually considered his actions for a MDDOTW award.

But, in the end, it just didn't qualify. So, I'm happy to report that, for the first time in three months, we will not be giving out this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week because nobody was disappointing enough to earn it.


Volume 53 (10/24/08)

While the polls look good, and it's always fun to see headlines like "Blame game: GOP forms circular firing squad" (from Politico), this week's Talking Points are a warning to Democrats everywhere who might appear on television any time from now until the polls close on Election Day. Because while Democrats are undoubtedly getting more and more gleeful as the election draws nigh, there is always the danger of appearing too complacent. Bragging, in other words.

We don't need any of that right now. There will be plenty of time to celebrate after the votes have been counted. Don't jump the gun, in other words, keep the corks in the champagne for now, and don't even give off the appearance of smugness or complacency -- because we don't want to screw things up at the last minute. There are millions of Democratic voters out there who are absolutely terrified that this one's going to get stolen, too. And the only way to defeat these fears is to remind everyone that they still need to go vote. It ain't over yet. Strangely (since I have sneered at the media for doing so), I have to say that the best way to assure a good outcome in the election is for Democrats to keep up the pressure and convince everyone that the election is really, really close, even though it may not turn out to be.

Voters want to know their votes matter, and close races motivate them to actually get to the polls on Election Day. So, here are this week's taking points, which are all short and sweet.


   Down to the wire

Don't say: "this race is over."

Instead, say: "I expect to be up quite late on Election Day, as I think this race will truly come down to the wire."


   October Surprise

Don't say: "Well, I guess there was no October Surprise this year."

Instead say: "There are X days left until the election, and I wouldn't put it past the Republicans to come up with an October... or even November... Surprise."


   Don't proclaim victory in any state

Don't say: "Barack Obama is going to easily win in Pennsylvania." (or Virginia, or Missouri, or wherever...)

Instead say: "I don't trust the polls, I think the race will be very, very close in Ohio." (or New Hampshire, or Colorado, or wherever...)


   The Bradley Effect

Don't say: "The Bradley Effect is overblown in the first place, and that was 26 years ago, so I don't think we'll see it this time around."

Instead say: "Since this is the first presidential election with a black man running, it is impossible to say what sort of Bradley Effect there will be. It could be quite large, which is why every state is going to count this year."


   The youth vote

One of the funniest lines in the campaign was written during the primary season, when Barack started beating Hillary and the media noticed the amount of young people at the polls. I've forgotten who wrote it, but it went something like this: "It's ironic that the Baby Boomers gained the right to vote for 18 year-olds, and the first time they actually show up to vote it is to vote against the Baby Boomer in the race, in favor of someone closer to their own age."

So, don't say: "We think the youth turnout is going to be enormous on Election Day, far better than anyone expects."

Instead say: "The youth vote has been counted on for the last thirty or forty years, and it has never shown up in numbers to make a difference on Election Day. While we urge young people to go out and make their voices heard at the polls, I just hope enough of them actually make the effort this year."


   The YouTube Factor

Don't say: "All this nonsense about voter fraud and dirty tricks on Election Day probably won't make much of a difference in the end."

Instead say: "We urge every single voter to be vigilant when voting. If they see any irregularities, or even anything that makes them suspicious in the slightest, we urge them to take out a cell-phone camera and video it for the world to see. The whole world will be watching this election, and that includes every single voter. Anyone who has the intent of causing trouble at the polls should be forewarned that they will not get away with it because voters will be watching them like a hawk."

[Public Service Announcement: PBS and YouTube have teamed up for a "Video Your Vote" collaboration which I wrote about this Monday. There are also other groups doing the same thing -- providing instant access for your video directly to the news media itself. Take your cell phone with you to the polls! Thank you. We now rejoin our regularly-scheduled column, already in progress...]


   New Hampshire, New Hampshire, New Hampshire

Don't say: "Well, the polls are looking like Obama's going to win around 390 electoral votes."

Instead say: "Remember when we all thought Obama was going to beat Hillary Clinton in the new Hampshire primary because every single poll told us that's what was going to happen? Barack himself has said it perfectly -- for anyone trusting in the polls that thinks they don't have to vote, here are two words that show you why you have to go out and vote: New Hampshire."


[Program Note: As mentioned, next week FTP will go on hiatus for our annual Hallowe'en column, which offers up chilling and terrifying nightmare scenarios to cause both Democrats and Republicans to go shrieking into the night. Don't miss it! FTP will resume the following Friday, 11/7/08.]


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground