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Telling Stories on the Campaign Trail: Lessons from McCain's Free-Fall

Though McCain might have wanted to tell a different story after the Straight Talk Express didn't work in 2000, politics is about telling coherent, emotionally compelling, memorable stories.
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John McCain's free-fall from high-flying Republican front-runner to the driver of a bus sputtering for cash and careening downward without any brakes is only the dénouement to a story that began in 2000. That's when McCain gave that infamous convention address praising the man who had behaved so unethically toward him in South Carolina, creating whisper campaigns about both his mental health (suggesting that his extraordinary courage as a prisoner of war had left him with a few screws loose) and a purported illegitimate black child (which was actually an adopted child from Bangladesh). At the Republican Convention, McCain looked like he was either on high doses of Thorazine or high doses of conscience, mouthing glowing words about a man he knew lacked "the right stuff" to be President of the United States.

There can be little question that his choice to morph himself into his one-time rival, particularly after Bush thumbed his nose at the American people after the November 2006 election and chose to escalate rather than de-escalate the war, was the tipping point in McCain's free-fall. In a brilliant television ad in August 2006 called "Speaking for Bush," Ned Lamont had shown just what association to Bush could do in his primary campaign against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, by literally morphing Lieberman into the unpopular "war president." Before long, Democrats all over the country were pairing Republican candidates with Bush and capitalizing on the association. Anyone who understands how associations work would have run from Bush like the plague after that. It is no surprise that the Republican contenders for the presidency, who tend to understand how emotional associations work, are doing everything they can to forge associative links to Ronald Reagan, hoping people will forget Dubbya and think of the Gipper.

As Arianna Huffington documented in her post yesterday, McCain's poll numbers hit the skids when it became clear that he had chosen to try to win the right by becoming Bush's wartime psychotic-in-chief, endorsing the President's "splurge" with the lives of other people's children (what are Bush's children doing stateside, by the way, when Iraq is the central front in our battle for freedom and civilization?), which had proven so toxic to Republicans all over the country in the 2006 midterm elections. But what changed between his grin-and-bear-it ode to the odious at the 2000 Republican Convention and the strategic course he set by early 2006 for the presidency was what set the stage for his undoing, placing him on the point from which he is now tipping. Most voters could understand his attempt -- even if not a very convincing one -- to be a good loser and a loyal Republican in 2000. But they could neither accept nor forgive a man with a lousy poker face who kept tipping his hand in public when he was so clearly bluffing.

The "strategic" decision McCain made before the country turned sour on the Iraq war (which we readily forget didn't happen until late in the summer of 2006, and is still a work in progress among the Republican faithful) was to cast his lot not only with George W. Bush but with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the conservative base that had delivered for Bush in 2004. McCain couldn't have known when he charted his course to the White House after 2004 that Bush's fortunes would fall so low and that making himself the "establishment candidate" to carry the Bush mantle would turn out to be such a disaster.

But he should have known something much more important: Politics is about telling coherent, emotionally compelling, memorable stories, particularly about who you are and what you stand for. What he stood for--and what had earned him the respect of many Independents and even many Democrats, who knew little about his conservative record but liked the story of John McCain -- was summarized by the name of his bus and his campaign motto: the Straight Talk Express.

That was his story. And although he might have wanted to tell a different story when that one didn't work the first time around, that was the story that had captured the imagination of the American public and might well have secured him both the nomination and the presidency in 2000 had it not been for the malfeasance of Karl Rove and George W. Bush. It was also the only story he could tell and be himself. When he chose to lose himself, he made a tremendous blunder that was at once moral and political--and one that Democratic candidates should note and note well, since it is the same blunder that cost Al Gore in 2000, when he ran on everything but what he most cared about, and John Kerry in 2004, when he disavowed the courage he had shown in standing up to the Senate against the Vietnam War in 1971, ultimately rendering him vulnerable to the flipflopper charge, the Swift Boat Attacks, and the attacks on his bona fides as a war hero.

What ultimately undid John McCain was not just the unpopularity of the Iraq War, which most of the Republican presidential nominees still support in one form or another (but are starting to rethink -- and if the Democrats don't save the footage of their first three debates and use the pro-war bluster liberally against whoever wins the GOP nomination, it will be time to start a new party). Nor was it his support for immigration reform, which, at a different time, he could have woven into his story as yet another example of a man willing to speak with the courage of his convictions even when his convictions were unpopular -- which it probably was.

The problem for John McCain was that his transparent right turn onto a bridge to nowhere and his cheerleading for a man he personally knew to be despicable -- because he'd looked into his eyes in South Carolina and seen his soul -- didn't fit the story that made him so compelling. Instead, as the perfidy of Bush Republicanism was about to become increasingly clear to the American public, what became equally clear was that the honorable McCain had learned from Dubbya that the straightest line between McCain and the White House was a dishonorable one.

Precisely when McCain made his pact with the devil is unclear, but the signs of his Faustian bargain were obvious by the spring of 2006. In March, at a straw poll of the Southern Republican Leadership Council, he disingenuously genuflected to the man he knew to be a false idol, urging those in attendance, "if any friends here are thinking about voting for me, please don't. Just write in President Bush's name. For the next three years, with the country at war, he's our President, and the only one who must have our support today." In April, he strained credulity even among the party faithful by calling George W. Bush "one of the great presidents of the United States." That was the same month he embraced Jerry Falwell and kissed his brass ring at Liberty University. This dramatic about-face by a man who had labeled Falwell an "agent of intolerance" just a few years earlier at a time when doing so was another sign of his straight-talking courage in the face of an increasingly intolerant Republican Party didn't fool the rageful and righteous, who know one of their own and saw the devil marks where McCain feigned stigmata. And it began cementing a new narrative that was emerging about McCain, the one that has left his campaign in tatters and would make him an easy mark were he somehow to pull off the miraculous and stumble his way into the general election: that he sold his soul for a brief lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The unfolding of that new narrative was clear on The Daily Show, as Jon Stewart struggled with what many in the center and the left struggled with as they watched a man they may not have agreed with on many issues but strongly admired lose the characteristic that had made him so admirable: "You're killing me here!" Stewart half-jokingly told McCain. "You're not freaking out on us -- are you going into crazy-[conservative] base world?" McCain laughed defensively as he defenselessly responded, "I'm afraid so." For a brief instant, he was talking straight again. As recounted in an April New York Times article by Adam Nagourney at the time, McCain had voted to make the president's caviar cuts permanent after having denounced them when Bush first proposed his tens of billions of dollars of welfare to the wealthy; supported the most draconian law ever seriously proposed on abortion, a South Dakota bill that would have forced rape and incest victims to bear their fathers' or rapists' babies; and expressed his support for the teaching of "intelligent design."

Nearly a year later, in March of 2007, Nagourney reported on an extraordinary moment in Iowa, when McCain was asked a simple question while chatting on his bus with reporters: Did he support the distribution of condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of H.I.V. as part of American aid to the AID-infested region? McCain searched for words, glanced at the ceiling, paused awkwardly with repeated silences, asked his aids to tell him what his position was, said he'd never thought about it before, and hoped his physician friend, right-wing Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, could help him out.

The New York Times reported a transcript of the incident and the telling Q&A that followed:

Q: "What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush's policy, which is just abstinence?"

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "Ahhh. I think I support the president's policy."

Q: "So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?"

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) "You've stumped me."

Q: "I mean, I think you'd probably agree it probably does help stop it?"

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) "Are we on the Straight Talk express? I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception -- I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it."

Q: "But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: 'No, we're not going to distribute them,' knowing that?"

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) "Get me Coburn's thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn's paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I've never gotten into these issues before."

McCain's question, "Are we on the Straight Talk express?", like his answer to Jon Stewart's question on The Daily Show, revealed everything the American people needed to know about John McCain. He was no longer aboard his own bus.

McCain's quest for the presidency is probably over. Now he must begin a new quest: to see if he can get his soul back. Hopefully the devil doesn't need him anymore.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, which was just published by PublicAffairs Books.

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