Monday, September 8, 2008

State of the Campaign: The 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. tml
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


Anonymous said...

Although both candidates may promise change should they be elected into the White House, we cannot be certain that both will deliver change.

Since the beginning of his campaign in the Democratic primaries, Obama has used this notion of change and reform as his running platform. Most believe he will carry through with this proposal, yet it is the degree of this change that frightens voters. There is too much uncertainty revolving around Obama for Americans to place their trust in his presidency. After serving in the Senate for a mere ten years, his votes did seem some what moderate, yet he has been constantly changing his opinion on major voting issues. As a result, many voters will be hesitant in casting their support in his direction, as some are still unsure of his plans while in the White House.

McCain on the other hand might not deliver on his promise of change. Although he has been praised for being a maverick while in Washington, the recent events have shown otherwise. While fighting for the Republican nomination, McCain's views seemed far right, yet upon receiving the nomination, it has been a dash towards the middle. He still agrees with Bush on several issues, but feels a need to distance himself from the administration of the last eight years. He could no longer play the experience card, as Obama nominated Joe Biden, a well seasoned politician with a breadth of knowledge in foreign affairs, and he nominated Sarah Palin, who on the other hand, received her first passport only a year ago. It now seems a bit comical when the governor of Alaska criticizes the city planner of a metropolis like Chicago for being inexperienced. Therefore many believe that electing McCain will be a repeat of the last eight years.

Regardless of which ticket becomes elected, America can expect a great deal of change in a different sense. This November will mark the first time either an African-American or a woman has been elected to the presidency or vice presidency. It says a lot about this nation, when, only decades ago, neither group had many opportunities. Hopefully the next president will follow through on his promise of change and continue the progress of this great nation.

Bobby Hausen
Regis High School

Anonymous said...

I believe that in a situation where a president wants to create change, the only way for that to happen would be to have a fully Republican or fully Democratic Congress so that Republican or Democratic "changes" could actually take place. It should be the work of the elected President to find a way to pass laws by removing partisan conditions or facilitating some form of unity in the Congress so that "change" can actually happen. With the biased conditions now it is sometimes impossible for any elected President to pass laws he sees fit without them being put down by Democratic or Republican resistance in the Congress. People are tired of the business as usual with the party system that term after term does not serve the people. We cannot continue with this current flawed system of Government. Change is definitely needed but it should be in the Party system of government.