So, the Republicans and Democrats have finished their conventions. Which of the candidates, John McCain or Barack Obama, is telling the strongest story?
The answer is, neither. That may explain why they are, in effect, tied in the latest opinion polls.
Since he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2000 – and got wasted by the Bush-Rove attack machine – McCain’s narrative has been about a straight-talking, maverick Republican who took on his own party, over taxes, campaign finance reform, climate change, environmental regulation, stem cell research and immigration. The message is that he could rise above party and clean up Washington.
By the beginning of this year, however, McCain had moved back to the right, for instance on oil drilling, to immigration to tax cuts for the wealthy. Hardly surprising, that’s where the votes were in the Republican primaries. Over the summer, the new, conservative McCain took on some of Bush’s team and got nasty, trying to paint Obama as an out-of-touch, elitist, snob – not “one of us”. This sort of toxic politics oozed through the Republican convention. McCain’s gang continued to play on what they see as voters’ resentment at liberal political elites who seem to look down on them. Paul Krugman has brilliantly dissected the sheer cynicism of this Nixonian ploy.
Then, in his (mediocre) convention speech on Thursday night, Americans mainly saw the old John McCain, speaking with quiet civility about fighting corruption, acknowledging that the Republicans “had lost the trust” of the American people and deploring “the constant partisan rancour that stops us from solving” problems. Senator McCain promised to reach out to “any willing patriot [and] make this government start working for you again” to use "the best ideas from both sides" and "ask Democrats and independents to serve with me.”
As E.J. Dionne jr. points out, the Republican nominee no longer embodies this narrative:
. . . because McCain has capitulated to the very Washington he condemned [on Thursday] and is employing the very tactics that were used ruthlessly and unfairly against him when he first ran for president eight years ago.
McCain is trying to run with these two different narratives by, in the words of the New York Times, “talking loftily of bipartisanship [while] allowing his team to savage his opponent.” The latter will be Sarah Palin’s one of main jobs, with her deliberate distortions of Barack Obama’s policies, eloquence and record. (McCain also questioned his opponents’ patriotism and Obama’s position on energy.) The logic is a bit strained but this gambit worked – just - for George W. Bush. How’s that for cynicism?
There’s more: McCain and co. will also try to bridge these two narratives by using an even bolder one: “reform”, which became the watchword of the Republican convention, appearing no fewer than 11 times in McCain’s own speech. They are trying to steal Obama’s “change” narrative.
Where the story runs aground though is that it’s not exactly clear what McCain’s “reform” means. Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post says:
"In McCain's attempt to fire up the Republican base without losing his "maverick" image, calls for reform have come to mean a pledge to "change" Washington -- with little explanation of what that change would be or how that change would take effect. "
Is “reform” in Washington about programmes, systems, or governing style? We haven't been told. And:
"It does not appear to have much to do with campaign finance reform, immigration reform, reforming the selection and confirmation of judges -- all issues that McCain had something to do with and have helped define his career in the Senate."
The reason is obvious: these issues would drive wedges between McCain and the conservative voters, lobbies and dollars that he needs. And what would he do for people struggling with rising bills and worried about losing their jobs?
That leaves McCain’s story only half built. Successful narratives aren’t just about personal stories and records, which McCain’s speech emphasised. They are also about issues and policies, framed these days as “solutions”. The two need to work together, with the candidate’s (or party’s) persona making the policy narrative more authentic.
Obama should have the edge. His promise of change is more credible. He can embody that narrative. [click here] He is new to Washington, unlike McCain, and the Democrats have been out of the White House for nearly eight years. But his economic narrative has still not struck a chord with voters.
The conservative pundit Michael Barone believes that both candidates have a problem:
"The Obama convention contended that the Democratic nominees understood people's woes from personal experience and that their programs would provide economic security. But the substance of those programs -- refundable tax credits (i.e., payments to those who pay no income tax) and a national health insurance option -- are unfamiliar to voters, and their details can be hard to explain."The McCain convention's thesis is that higher taxes on high earners in a time of slow growth will squelch the economy (this was Herbert Hoover's policy, after all).These assertions, too, are unfamiliar to voters. And, up to this point in the campaign, neither party has set out its programs clearly (or characterized the other side's fairly)."
On energy, the other big issue of the campaign so far, this is playing out in the much the same way.
Neither Obama nor McCain will prevail until they have got their narratives together, the policy and the personal.
Still, supporters of political parties in the UK shouldn’t be too judgemental. None of them has got the story mix right. Despite the progress that’s been made on policy stories this year, that includes the Liberal Democrats.