Two weeks after the Sarah Palin nomination shook up the presidential race, we seem to be settling into a new campaign narrative, one which should deeply concern John McCain and his advisors.
Below is a screen capture of the most popular stories on the New York Times website. I grabbed it today, September 14:
Nine of the ten most popular stories concern the election. All of them are critical of the McCain campaign.
You can find a similar narrative playing out on McCain's favorite network, MSNBC, which ran this article entitled, "Wheels Come Off Straight Talk Express?" The article cites a series of embarassing stories about the McCain campaign, including Story #10 above, McCain's disastrous appearance on "The View" where he was scolded by Joy Behar, Barbara Walters, and Whoopi Goldberg, and the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and FactCheck.org all criticizing the McCain campaign for deceptive statements and advertisements.
It may be tempting for McCain's campaign to dismiss this latest turn of events as part of the standard anti-Republican bias of the mainstream media. In fact, McCain spokesperson Brian Rogers actually said, "We’re running a campaign to win. And we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it."
This is a terrible mistake.
John McCain's greatest strength (historically at least) has been his reputation as a straight-talking man of honor. When the entire MSM universe loads up and calls you a liar, that strikes at the heart of that advantage.
McCain has to be careful not to take for granted his historically cozy relationship with the press ("My base," as he referred to the fourth estate during happier times). McCain rose to prominence because he granted the media unprecedented access and charmed them with his authentic personality; now he has cut off media access and is taking his cues from the same (devastatingly effective) campaign team that George W. Bush used to destroy McCain in 2000.
Moreover, keeping the support of the media is exceptionally important in this election. The Palin pick has energized the Republican base, but that base has been eroded by an unpopular presidency and an unpopular war. If McCain and Obama both retain their base and split independent voters, Obama wins in a landslide. McCain has to attract independent voters, and he's unlikely to do so when the New York Times and Washington Post are calling him a liar.
Americans don't like or trust most politicians; the candidates who most successfully maintain an aura of authenticity tend to win. Just ask Hillary Clinton how being perceived as being willing to say or do anything to get elected worked out for her.
Or, as the famous saying goes, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."
So what should McCain do?
First, he should stop overplaying his hand. The McCain campaign has staked its success on the narrative of McCain and Palin as being reformers who will bring needed change to America. Part of its strategy has been to respond aggressively when the Obama campaign or other Democrats point out how McCain and Palin fall short of this ideal (e.g. the fact that Palin keeps saying she didn't support the "Bridge to Nowhere" despite video of her giving speeches in support of it).
McCain has to stop falling prey to the Nixon Maxim: The cover-up is always more dangerous than the crime.
When Obama's campaign catches McCain or Palin in a contradiction, McCain should say, "My opponent is right. I haven't always done the right thing. But both Governor Palin and I are committed to reform, and I'll stack my credentials as a reformer against anyone, especially my opponent."
Second, McCain should focus on strengths that are unassailable because they are true, backed up by facts, and resonate with the American people. While some commentators (e.g. Andrew Sullivan) rip into McCain for constantly relying on his heroism and suffering as a POW in Vietnam, McCain needs to keep up the drumbeat. "I have served my country for decades, and sacrificed everything for it, including my health and my freedom. I have no doubt that my opponent wants to serve his country, but he hasn't demonstrated his commitment in the same way."
Finally, the McCain should stop trying to prove that Palin has the foreign policy experience to be President of the United States. In the best case scenario, talking points like Alaska's proximity to Russia, or touting the governor as an energy expert seem laughable; worst case, they seem desperate and cynical. Instead, Palin should focus attention on her biography and ability to understand the average American. "Like most Americans, I haven't had time to memorize the names of the world's leaders. In between governing my state and raising my family, I haven't had the opportunities to travel the world in private jets and have my picture taken on five continents. But I do understand the concerns of hard-working Americans who want to make sure they can keep their jobs and afford their homes."