We are talking about the Presidency of the United States of America in 2008. The most powerful and influential position in the entire world. All the world watches, waits, anticipates, frets, worries, holds their breath. What is at stake here? Here it is, as America goes so goes the world. For the candidates we are talking about a place in history. A stellar place. A pivotal place. This is no small deal, folks. And some will go to any means to achieve this deal.
Few people know the names of William Jennings Bryan or Adlai Stevenson – both two-time candidates for President. The loser in this election is destined for the same fate. If Obama loses he will get an asterisk by his name for being the first African American to be nominated by a major party. If McCain loses he will be forgotten by most. The people who rise to their party’s nomination are people of substantial egos. This is personal, as well as historical.
Political strategies start with high ideals. Both McCain and Obama pledged to keep the campaigns focused on the issues. That leaves room for deciding what is or is not an issue. Up front, the issues in 2008 are glaring, economic crisis and two wars come to mind. Bin Laden remains free and terrorism is very much alive in the world. One might think that these issues would be enough to keep the candidates busy flapping their mouths and directing staff here and there.
There are some folks who sit on the sideline and keep points on substance, style, and impression with voters – these folks are called pollsters. When the polls are even, with each candidate showing strength, the candidates hold to their high ideals. But when the polls tip in one direction or another the candidate who is down goes into a two-minute offense. They have to. The gamblers who put the big money on the game are called political contributors – political contributors like to bet on winners.
In the early stages of the political campaigns much of the jockeying is about image – and the pollsters measure how the image is being received. And 2008 happens to be a transformational year – too many problems brings malcontent with voters. In this particular year the Democratic Convention was held before the Republican Convention. Obama secured the nomination with charisma, intellect, great speaking skills, and a message of change. He chose seasoned Senator Joe Biden to balance his experience deficiency. Obama shot out of the Convention with a bump in the image race, according to the pollsters.
McCain, an old warrior, recognized his message of experience was faltering. McCain needed a bump to counter Obama. Known as a risk taker, McCain lived up to his reputation. He chose little known, or unknown, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin brought youth and solid culturally conservative credentials to the ticket. McCain bounced out of his convention with the pollsters blessing as the candidate in the lead.
McCain basked in the glory of his opportunity. McCain is a proven warrior, a war hero, a long term Senator, with sterling foreign policy credentials. Palin picked up the baggage of the cultural conservatives – life looked good. Obama struggled to regain his footing, remaining calm but concerned.
Then life took a turn neither candidate dreamed of. Wall Street began smoking under the spontaneous combustion of heaping piles of bad loans. McCain’s experience in the Senate became a liability and his poll numbers dropped. (Remember, that is not good).
President Bush, McCain’s old nemesis, called for taxpayer salvation of Corporate America. Now that is something that will make history. McCain needed to demonstrate leadership, he proclaimed that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. Right or not – this did not resonate with the people who are polled. His poll numbers dropped more. Desperate to show leadership, McCain suspended his campaign to “… go to Washington to negotiate a deal with Congress …” That tactic was viewed with suspicion and his numbers faltered.
McCain and Obama met in the first debate on foreign policy, McCain’s home field advantage. But Obama fought him to a draw. Obama’s poll numbers went up. The Congressional deal was sealed and both candidates supported the outcome – never to speak of it again.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sarah Palin stepped in a gopher hole and twisted her ankle while riding Katie Couric’s horse. Palin was supposed to be Annie Oakley, skilled with horses and cowboys. McCain’s numbers slipped.
With foreign policy on the back burner and the economy sinking further, McCain needed a boost. No one wants to bet on a horse that is trailing. It was time for McCain to play a trump card. (All candidates are allowed a couple of trump cards – but they are not cheap). In this case, McCain’s trump card was to simply redefine the issues. The issues, McCain said, were about character, about honesty, about patriotism.
Character is always a dangerous place to go. We are all humans, none of us in recent memory were born in a manger. That is the nature of political trump cards – they usually cut two ways. The very act of playing the character trump card challenges the character of the candidate playing the card. That is exactly what has happened to McCain.
McCain and his staff programmed their new wind-up-doll Sarah Palin with one liners, zingers. She and McCain would invest a week in bringing up any weary association in Obama’s life. Connect him with a ‘… washed up domestic terrorist …” Better yet, say they ‘paled around.’ Obama has dark skin and a funny name – he might pass for a non-American, perhaps even a Muslim. He speaks well so he must be a silver tongued snake – a serpent sent by the devil himself. He is probably a terrorist himself. The fear card. Scare the electorate right down to their bones.
After a week of priming their audience was ready. McCain and Palin would shout to the rally, “Who is Barack Obama?” Pre-programmed with information the audience would shout, “TERRORIST!” McCain and Palin would smile. “.. Kill Him! ..” Even better. “.. Off with his head!.. ” It just does not get much better than this. McCain called him , “.. That one .. ” – a racial slur of years past (young people did not get this one). The character card was working. Or so they thought.
Obama played some of his cards. Because of McCain actions around negotiating a Congressional deal Obama referred to McCain as being erratic. This was interpreted by some as a code word for “too old.”
The pollsters measured a larger audience than the folks at the rallies. McCain was losing more support. Time for another trump card. McCain pulled out the card that Bush had given him eight years ago. At the time McCain said he would never stoop that low. He played the ROBO Call. Those are computer driven telephone calls designed to smear the character of the opponent. Computers can call thousands of people in an afternoon. Most of us enjoy being interrupted from the football game to talk to a computer. So you see there is risk involved.
But remember – there is much at stake.
With no immediate result McCain is introducing the most dreaded of name calling. Obama is a socialist. Never mind that it was the Republican Bush administration that nationalized the banks. Obama is a socialist – he believes in Robin Hood economics – steal from the rich and give to the poor – redistribute the wealth.
Taxes are always about wealth redistribution. Each pays a share and each gets to use the highways, and storm sewers, and schools, and fire and police protection – infrastructure stuff. Collect some from everyone and allow all equal access to the product. Redistribution of wealth – and there has never been a time in history when everyone agreed the distribution was equitable – that is the nature of taxes.
But McCain has overtones in his socialist message – the implication is Marxist – and the dreaded word “Communist.” The mother of all trump cards. There is no greater evil – Communism is worse than the Nazi Skin-head racists at the McCain/Palin rallies. McCain says, “All of the socialist countries in Europe like Obama.” He thinks no American could possibly respect Europeans – thus he tries to make Europe an Obama association.
So here we are. Two weeks to go. McCain has played his trump cards. So far they have hurt his desire as much or more than they have hurt Obama.
The world is at stake.
In 1984 Walter Mondale challenged the enormously popular sitting President Ronald Reagan. Mondale threw all the rocks he could lift. The rocks bounced off the Teflon Reagan. Two weeks before the vote, Mondale changed tactics – he dumped his bag of rocks and talked about issues. He knew he was going to lose, but he told a friend, “This is how I want my grandchildren to remember me.”
The game of politics is not fair, it is not easy, it is tough. Forget this stuff we tell our children in youth basketball – “It is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game.” Not so in politics – up to a point.
There comes a point in each of our lives when we begin to think about our personal legacy. If you value your personal legacy – stay out of politics.
Readers – Help us out here – share some of the tactics you have observed – we may incorporate them into the post –
Thanks, Ohg Rea Tone
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