Wednesday, 9 April 2008

McCain vs. McCain - a quick update

I have previously blogged that one of Senator John McCain’s big challenges is to decide which story he is going to tell about himself – the maverick or the true conservative. I argued that he couldn’t win by telling both and that he would try to, in effect, fuse the two stories, running as a straight-talking problem solver, better qualified and stronger on national security than Senator Barack Obama.

So far, McCain is hardly trying to shut down the maverick story. Also, he is telling a personal tale of honour and national service, to show that he is an American warrior who can be trusted on national security.

It’s working rather well. The latest New York Times / CBS poll says that 81 per cent of Americans – yes, four out of five, think the country is on the wrong track. Yet McCain, the candidate of a Republican Party badly tarnished by the Bush presidency, leads Barack Obama by one point and Hillary Clinton by three points.

One explanation is that nobody is showing up the basic conflict between McCain’s stories.

The Economist’s Lexington columnist contends that the Democrats’ “demolition derby”, Obama vs. Clinton, is ruining their chances of victory in November. S/he says:

“. . . rather than defining Mr McCain the Democrats are letting Mr McCain define himself.

"This might not matter so much if the senator from Arizona were a mere Bush clone. But he is more than that—a spunky maverick who has frequently broken with the Republican machine and earned admiration from moderates and independents. He is also using his time wisely. He has tried to look presidential by touring the Middle East and Europe (not without mishap, as when he managed to confuse Sunni and Shia extremists in Iraq). And he has tried to distance himself from George Bush's foreign policy by stressing the importance of global co-operation, calling for a reduction in stockpiles of nuclear weapons and pledging that he will do more to deal with global warming and malaria.”

And let’s not forget the crucial role of media narrative. Paul Krugman has previously written about Clinton rules, under which large sections of the media attribute sinister motives to just about anything the Clintons say or do. Now he talks about McCain rules:

". . . under which anything John McCain says, no matter how craven or dishonest, becomes proof of his straight-talking maverickness (mavericity?).”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting conundrum, isn't it and few of us six months ago were predicting a McCain win in the primaries, let alone him being ahead in opinion polls.

I'm not sure I necessarily agree that there is a big conflict between McCain's narratives however. He thinks of himself as a Reagan conservative and he votes against his party frequently enough to retain his maverick label (although lately he's gone back within the fold to a greater degree than before).

I definitely agree with the view though that he is helped by the conflict being focused on the Obama/Clinton race. Whilst McCain swept to his party's nomination quickly in what could be portrayed as a strong endorsement, the Democrats seem determined to go to the bitter end.

Unless Hillary wins by a comfortable margin in Pennsylvania though it will all be over for her. It will be interesting to see what happens to McCain's numbers when someone is running directly against him.