State of the Campaign: Message Wars

Sixty days to go. We are waiting for the polling numbers to shake out after the post-convention bounces. But who is winning on the different components of a campaign, on message, biography, the issues, and on the ground?

Usually, the two parties craft different messages for an election depending on which party is in power, the personality and record of the candidates, and the issues on most people’s minds. But, this year, both parties have embraced the same message, change, and that is because a politician who will not even be on the ballot has made change such an unavoidable mantra. George W. Bush’s popularity is so low that even the Republicans must jump on the change bandwagon.


John McCain had enough of a reputation as a maverick through the years to make his claim to being a change-agent plausible. He fought his own party when he pushed for campaign finance reform. He voted against President Bush’s tax cuts back in 2001. More recently, his principled opposition to torture, strengthened by his biography, made human rights activists proud even while it angered the White House. McCain supported Bush in the effort to achieve humane immigration reform, but the GOP base revolted against both politicians and they were forced to retract. And he also backed down on his opposition to torture and now supports the Bush tax cuts. On the major issues, Bush was a maverick but he isn’t now.

McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin was an additional step towards becoming the campaign of change. Although a GOP operative, caught speaking on a microphone that he thought was turned off called the Palin choice "cynical," it represented a decision by the campaign to choose "change" rather than "experience" as the central theme of the campaign. (We don’t know which came first, the Palin egg or the change chicken, and we may never know.) Commentators note that the experience label did not work for Hillary Clinton, but that misreads what happened in the Democratic primaries. When Hillary launched her "3 a.m. phone call" ads questioning Barack Obama’s readiness for office, she started to win big primaries.

McCain’s problem is that he is a Republican and that Republicans have controlled the White House for the past eight years, the Congress for six of the past eight years, and seven of nine justices on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans. Additionally, McCain has been in Washington for 26 years: if he has not been able to change his party so far, why should we believe he can change the culture of Washington now?

Barack Obama has made change the centerpiece of his campaign from the beginning. In truth, the one-term senator from Illinois could hardly make experience his strong suit, either in the primaries against Clinton or in the general election against McCain. Obama embraced change because it was the only campaign theme that worked with his biography and, in the event, he struck gold. After eight years of George W. Bush, and twenty years of divisive partisanship under the presidents of both parties (and two families), change was bound to resonate with the electorate this year.

Obama recognizes that to win the election, he would nee to win among unaffiliated, or independent, voters. And, to beat Clinton, he needed to lump her husband’s tenure with the Bushes in their excessive partisanship. So, Obama calls for a specific kind of change: post-partisan change. But, Obama’s promise of post-partisan change is oddly lacking in any policy consequences. His proposals are mostly standard fare for any Democratic candidate: universal health insurance, tax cuts for the working and middle class, tax hikes for the rich, etc. You search in vain for an Obama policy proposal that is new, and new in a way that it permits a bi-partisan approach. The only exception is his endorsement of efforts to reduce the number of abortions. (More on that in the next couple of days.)

So, while neither candidate can really claim that their presidency would represent fundamental change, or perhaps because they can’t sustain such a claim, look for them to shout it all the louder in the last sixty days of the race. "McCain the Maverick" will become one word: McCainthemaverick. And Obama might as well change his middle name to Change. Still, round #1, the message round, goes to the Democrats: They have defined the terms of the election. And, the person they need to thank for helping them is the incumbent GOP president.

Michael Sean Winters


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