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Does McCain need a new campaign manager?

June 10, 2008

Is this man leading McCain towards a possible defeat?

After spending some time looking at the Republican blogosphere I was struck by the fact that a general despondency has set in, with a consensus emerging that Obama’s victory is inevitable. I also noticed that there is increasing talk about 2012, indicating that some on the right are perpared to write this election off. Even though I still believe that Jeremiah Wright means that the Republican base will turn out against Obama, there is a possibility that if Obama’s lead gets too large both the base and the Republican commentators will begin to desert McCain, or spend all their time engaging in any orgy of recriminations instead of helping his campaign. Even Irwin Seltzer, one of McCain’s strongest supporters, seems to be changing his tune and now attacks both McCain and Obama for their energy policies in his latest article for the Weekly Standard (which itself is edited by McCain’s friend Bill Kristol).

As all of this is happening, McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis complacently announced that the McCain campaign expects, and is implicitly going to tolerate, Obama leads of up to 10% by the end of this month. Now Rick Davis may have helped McCain in 2000 and got credit for getting him out of the hole he was in this time last year, although Davis may have played a role in creating such a hole, but I believe that the reason why McCain won the Republican nomination was due to Lieberman’s endorsement of him and because he was able to find a cause that he really believed in, namely the surge in Iraq. However, ever since McCain became the nominee, McCain has run a really uninspiring campaign. Indeed, every topic seems now to be out of bounds, for either fear of alienating ‘the base’, appearing a ‘warmonger’ or because there is something wrong with attacking Barack Obama.

Now, there may be some truth to the idea that McCain cannot move completely to the centre. It is a fact that the Republican Party cannot win without social conservatives, and McCain is genuinely pro-life. However, that doesn’t mean that McCain cannot talk about things such as closing tax loopholes, ending the bailouts of feckless investment bankers (not least because such bailouts are provoking calls for the sort of state intervention not seen since the 1970s) and talk about ending the revolving door between lobbyists and the bodies that are supposed to oversee them. McCain should also really push the few good policies that he has, such as his idea of a healthcare credit of $5,000 for each family. Even if the war in Iraq is as unpopular as some people seem to think it is, and when you throw national security into the mix I’d wager McCain comes out ahead on foreign policy, it is something that he obviously believes in and he is the kind of politician who cannot pander, without appearing cold, insincere and passionless. Indeed, on domestic policy McCain must be the first politican in history who thinks he can win by running away from the centre at a time when the polls indicate that people are crying out for a more moderate approach to govenrment.

Even though the Republican party has a shameful history of race baiting adverts, with the disgusting campaign against Harold Ford Jr in 2006 and the immigrant bashing elements in the 2007 special election only one many recent examples, there is nothing wrong with attacking Obama on the issues. There is no reason why McCain, who himself was the victim of a racist smear in 2000 involving his adopted daughter, cannot attack Obama on his multiple positions on Iraq, or his addiction to earmarks, just as he would have done if Hillary Clinton had been the nominee. Of course, it would be utterly wrong to follow elements of the Republican party or Bill Clinton into the gutter or to himself hit Obama below the belt, (and he has a duty to disavow those who try to do so) but he must be able to respond to Obama’s attacks on his policies and throw a few punches (though strictly no elbows) of his own. He also needs to respond when Obama makes unfounded accusations of dirty tricks on the part of him and his surrogates. Indeed, my cynical view is that a large number of Republicans want McCain to unilaterally disarm and refrain from any negative campaigning so they can continue to use dog-whistles and smears in future elections.

Therefore I think it is time for McCain to fire Rick Davis, along with Charlie Black and the rest of his team (though keeping Bloomberg’s and Schwarzenegger’s staff would be tactically wise). After all, Charlie Black’s major experience, apart from getting kicked off the Reagan campaign team in 1980 was Bush Snr’s anaemic re-election campaign of 1992, to which the McCain campaign is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to. I’m not an expert on Republican party strategists, and I wouldn’t advise him to pick a paleo-conservative such as Ed Rollins, but my personal suggestion would be for either Bill Kristol to leave the Weekly Standard or for Marshall Wittmann to leave Lieberman’s office and for someone like Dick Morris to be in charge of speechwriting. Of course in this case, Dick Morris would need someone above him to stop him if he tried to get McCain to change his views on Iraq, but at least half of his strategic advice is very good. If McCain can make these changes, I could not see how he’d lost, but if he carries on for two long the election could easily turn into a tossup, forcing me to downgrade his chances of victory to 70%.

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