March 05, 2008

John McCain And The "Respectful" Campaign

In his victory speech last night, Sen. John McCain gave his best wishes to Gov. Mike Huckabee who had, minutes earlier, ended his campaign. He then told a room full of supporters that he looked forward to making “a respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as President, given the alternatives presented by our friends in the other party, are in the best interests of the country we love”.

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Just last week, McCain distanced himself from Cincinnati radio talk show host Bill Cunningham’s not-too-gentle mocking of Barrack Obama’s middle name – Hussein. Cunningham had been recruited by McCain’s campaign as a conservative voice who could rev up a crowd at a rally for the presumptive GOP nominee. Cunningham, understandably, fumed at this.

At that point, McCain emphasized that he wouldn’t embrace any campaign tactics that didn’t accord his opponent (whomever it will eventually be) with the appropriate level of respect. Many pundits scratched their heads, pointing to a perceived politically-correct RNC who had cautioned its membership against saying anything that could be construed as racist or sexist.

So what’s with this tone of restraint? Shouldn’t McCain’s campaign hammer away at Hillary and remind voters why they don’t like her? Shouldn’t he define “the Messiah” before the media can?

Well, first of all, it would be wise to follow the maxim of not interfering when your opponent (in this case opponents) are doing damage to themselves (in this case each other). Certainly, this would seem to be a shrewd tactical move. But for John McCain it’s more than that. He truly has a distaste for the attack ad, the innuendo and the smear which for most politicians are staples of their communications arsenal. Anyone who’s read McCain’s books can understand the value he places on honor. In fact, I daresay it’s one of the qualities that help him garner so many votes in the primary process.

McCain is a decent man. To many in his party (yours truly included), he’s a royal pain in the arse. But even his opponents get that he is a man who lives (or at least aspires to live) to a standard of decency that usually results in getting oneself politically eaten alive. It didn’t help in the face of the Bush machine in 2000, though I would argue that that race was Bush's to lose anyway. But just as he professes that he’d rather lose a campaign than a war, John McCain would rather lose a campaign honorably than win it dishonorably. Don’t underestimate how appealing this is to the block of voters who will decide this election in November. He weathered a hotly contested open primary process after his campaign was all but declared dead in the water. McCain is a survivor. He won’t draw first blood. He’ll extend his hand in fairness. But when attacked, he’ll respond. And as Mitt Romney discovered, he’ll strike to kill. Not a bad quality in a Commander-In-Chief.

The last two elections have been filled with such partisan rancor that we’ve become, as most pundits like to say, a 50/50 nation – polarized into red and blue states. Campaigns seemed to be run more on personality than policy. In 2004, we had the smirking Chimperor v. the haughty French looking flip-flopper. Ronald Reagan won elections based on ideas more than partisanship. It’s what got him the votes of independents and the “Reagan Democrats”. In this way, McCain is following in the Gipper’s footsteps.

Voters really are sick of how toxic and unseemly politics has gotten. Yes, politics has often been unseemly, but in this day and age you get to experience it 24/7. And it’s a little exhausting. Heck, I’m a pretty partisan guy and even I’m sick of it.

Imagine how the non-partisan voters must feel. Imagine their disgust.

It doesn’t make sense to hammer Hillary. She pouts and cries and plays the victim. And that gets you nowhere. It could even end up biting you in the butt. It doesn’t make sense attack Obama personally. People like him personally. You make it personal and voters will rally to him. Let Hillary and Obama get personal. Let them get nasty. It will only make them seem pettier and less serious. And if that’s all they’ve got, they’re in trouble eight months from now. Because McCain won’t just stand there and take it. He’ll give it right back, but no one will fault him for it. And he’ll come away from it looking like the good guy.

Fans of the movie "Road House" know that Dalton the ass-kicking bouncer's default mode was to "be nice". It garnered him respect. Of course, when nice no longer worked...

No, I think McCain’s instincts are right on here. Bill Cunningham’s support of McCain wasn’t genuine. He went to that rally despite his disdain for the candidate. His opposition to the two Democrat nominees was genuine. And that’s what drove his emphasis of Obama’s middle name. It wasn’t out of bounds. Hussein is the man's middle name, after all. But it wasn’t necessary either. McCain responded out of conviction, not fear.

John McCain has a long way to go to convince movement conservatives to not just vote for him, but to back him enthusiastically. He gets this. But there are some places McCain is just not willing to go. He made that clear.

If Republicans make this election about ideas – as Reagan did – then they can persuade plenty of voters to their side. Maybe they can pick up a few Senate and House seats too.

Posted by Gary at March 5, 2008 09:48 PM | TrackBack

"People who really want to have a good time won't come to a slaughterhouse. And we've got entirely too many troublemakers here. Too many 40-year-old adolescents, felons, power drinkers and trustees of modern chemistry."

A very underrated film. Plus, Kelly Lynch.

Posted by: The Abbot at March 6, 2008 07:17 AM