“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” – Mark Twain
If you’re part of the McCain team, here’s what you’re thinking.
You didn’t know anything substantive about Palin before she was selected (why would you? She wasn’t vetted). You meet her. You quickly realize she’s bereft of even minimal acquaintance with defense, foreign policy, the economy, climate issues, domestic concerns, or any other area in which a president needs a firm grounding. You realize you can’t let her out in public unscripted because she’s so unready that a disaster is certain.
Your first response, therefore, is Oh, shit.
(Before denying anything in the above paragraph, you need to explain why, if Palin could exceed or even barely meet the press’s and public’s increasingly modest expectations, McCain’s people won’t take off the gag. That they’re willing to pay a price for gagging her demonstrates they know removing the gag would be worse. Watch the Letterman clip below. He asks the eminently common sense question: even if McCain himself can’t multitask and it made sense for him to suspend his campaign in response to the current economic crisis as he claims, why can’t his vice presidential running mate campaign in his stead? If the quarterback can’t play, where’s the second string?).
You fight panic. You force yourself to think… think, damn it! And you realize — hey, you don’t need to make her an actual expert on any of those tough presidential subjects (and thank God for that, because true expertise in any, let alone all of these areas would be impossible in the time and circumstances available). What you need to do instead is just train her to seem like an expert. Sure, sure, you think, feeling better now, feeling like there’s hope. It’s like the difference between being a real martial artist, and being able to realistically bust out a few moves in front of the cameras on a movie set. Not that the second one is easy, but it’s nothing compared to the first. That’s the way to look at it — she doesn’t have to be an expert; she just has to play one on TV.
You’re nodding now. Positive self talk. You can do this. This can be done. It’s not like you have to pull it off for two years or anything. The election’s on November 4, for God’s sake… that’s right around the corner. Look how long Bush and company kept the war in Iraq going by continually announcing new six-month milestones. If they can do that for six years, surely you can do this for six weeks.
But you’re going to have to let her out at some point. No getting around that. Eventually, people are going to start asking what you’re hiding, what you’re afraid of. Whether you’re running a campaign worthy of Vladimir Putin, whether this mystery candidate is really the Manchurian Candidate.
Panic starts to rise again. You beat it back. You grab a pencil and paper. Write it down, come up with a method. Plan the work, work the plan. Don’t panic. Think. You can do it. The plan looks like this:
1. Push back “eventually” as long as possible. Inject as many smears about Obama’s patriotism and as much bullshit about lipstick and kindergarten sex education as you can to obscure what you’re really up to. Sure, McCain will take heat for turning the “Straight Talk Express” into the Bullshit Express, for sullying his alleged honor and integrity, but better that be the campaign narrative than incontrovertible proof that he selected a cipher to be a 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.
2. Hide her. Force feed her everything she needs to know to avoid making a catastrophic mistake when she’s finally allowed to open her mouth. Remember, you don’t have to turn her into an expert, just someone who plays one on TV. Just enough to avoid that catastrophic mistake.
3. The preceding two points reinforce each other. The longer you hide her, the more you can improve her acting skills and the less the public expects. When “eventually” finally happens, you push her out in front of the press and public. At this point, you’ve been hiding her so long everyone’s expecting her to be as vacuous as the icy void of space. Instead, she gets through her talking points without a major gaffe. The narrative then becomes, “She’s not as clueless as we were expecting.” You shrug and say, “What was the big deal? Told you we had nothing to hide.”
Lower expectations dramatically, bone up her acting skills… with a whole lot of luck, you can get the two to cross on a graph. In the meantime, it’s the political high-wire act of the century. But hey, they don’t pay you the big bucks for nothing.
For a variety of reasons, it won’t work.
First, there’s the difficulty, noted above, of bringing someone like Palin up to speed even as a pretend-expert.
Second, there’s the hostility the McCain camp is engendering even in the supine mainstream media. When you’ve been in the tank for your buddy John McCain as long as the MSM has, and he then repeatedly ignores your gentle hints that his statements are, shall we say, at odds with the factual record, making you look like co-opted, unappreciated fools, and he then turns on his erstwhile best buds and accuses them of not even being journalists, the backlash from the erstwhile best buds is going to get downright personal. And without the press to enable it, the narrative you’re desperately trying to create — “she’s better than you thought!” — won’t take root outside the rightwing blogosphere.
Then there’s the economy, the wars, Katrina, the whole Republican brand…
But wait, there’s still more. Choosing Palin destroyed one of the ventricles of McCain’s brand: his claim to experience. You can’t build a brand on experience and then select a neophyte like Palin to be your understudy. So what McCain and Palin are now trying to do, fundamentally, is build a new brand, about Change and Reform, in under two months. This is a hell of a hard thing to do — dot bombs in Silicon Valley spent millions on just such efforts, and I’m not aware of any that succeeded. And here, the task is particularly daunting because the packaging in which McCain and Palin are attempting to wrap themselves is so at odds with the facts of the underlying product more on political brand dissonance here. John McCain not only looks like the establishment, this son and grandson of admirals and quarter-century-in-congress-and-the-senate politician is the establishment. Meanwhile, every one of Palin’s claim to be a reformer, from “thanks, but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere to selling the plane on eBay to firing the governor’s cook to taking a paycut to believing in transparency in government has been proven false.
But wait, there’s still more. Choosing Palin destroyed one of the ventricles of McCain’s brand: his claim to experience. You can’t build a brand on experience and then select a neophyte like Palin to be your understudy. So what McCain and Palin are now trying to do, fundamentally, is build a new brand, about Change and Reform, in under two months. This is a hell of a hard thing to do — dot bombs in Silicon Valley spent millions on just such efforts, and I’m not aware of any that succeeded. And here, the task is particularly daunting because the packaging in which McCain and Palin are attempting to wrap themselves is so at odds with the facts of the underlying product (more on political brand dissonance here).
John McCain not only looks like the establishment, this son and grandson of admirals and quarter-century-in-congress-and-the-senate politician is the establishment. Meanwhile, every one of Palin’s claim to be a reformer, from “thanks, but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere to selling the plane on eBay to firing the governor’s cook to taking a paycut to believing in transparency in government has been proven false.
So abruptly changing the McCain brand from Experience to Change/Reform is as difficult a maneuver as Volvo suddenly abandoning “safety” in favor of “speed.” A change like that is damn near impossible under any circumstances. When the underlying product doesn’t support — and in fact contradicts — the new brand direction, sales will be a disaster. As the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clear, you might even see management begin to indulge in increasingly bizarre and desperate gambits: contradicting themselves again and again on the health of the company (or of the economy; more lying, even on trivial matters; lashing out at shareholders who criticize their plans (at the press); or trying to postpone or cancel shareholder meetings (or to hide from reporters); or suspend a campaign; or cancel debates; or run from TV appearances). Anything to avoid, or just delay, the inevitable rendezvous with reality.
Speculation: what we’re seeing now is not just the wheels coming off the McCain campaign following serial collisions with the real world. McCain’s recent pleas to suspend the campaign and cancel debates are evidence that the candidate’s age is showing. Members of the media (before concluding McCain was just using them) used to laud McCain’s remarkable vigor. But even if he was vigorous during the primary, at some point the relentless pace and grinding duration of a presidential campaign will take their toll. McCain’s people know if he has even one senior moment, or one of the intemperate outbursts for which he’s known, during a debate, all hope will be lost. I think they’ve been seeing more of such moments in private, and are now trying to find a way to get him some rest before he gets lost in public. And I’m not the only one wondering. Here’s George Will and company; here’s David Letterman’s scathing mockery.
A significant percentage of the country will vote for McCain and Palin no matter what. Likewise, a significant percentage for Obama and Biden. The independent middle only needs to move a little one way or the other to swing the election. By definition, that middle is considerate. The more time they have to consider the monumental bullshitter that John McCain has become, and how frighteningly unready his understudy is, the more independents will break for Obama.
As with Obama’s race with Clinton, when the general election ends in November, people will look back and realize it had been over for a long time already. What we’re seeing now is the McCain campaign’s fingers continuing to twitch long after the brain has died.