Killing the Brand

John McCain and Barack Obama are both noteworthy for getting better-than-average press and for having savvy communications teams. They’re also noteworthy for the fact that their teams have very different ideas about what their job is supposed to be. The Obama team is constantly frustrating progressive bloggers and news junkies by being extremely cavalier about the news cycle. They don’t seem especially interesting in pouncing on gaffes or in responding to accusations, and they’re not especially quick on the draw or generous with talking points. Instead, they have a very inner-directed approach that’s all about building and cultivating the Obama brand to their own specifications and on their own schedule. The McCain campaign’s not like that at all. They’re obsessed with winning the news cycle and they’re good at it. But they’re much less interested in the McCain brand. That’s one thing you see with the “POW! POW! POW!” schtick — McCain’s war record is a great asset so they don’t hesitate to bust it out in all kinds of situations irrespective of the fact that busting it out constantly undermines the asset and creates a powerful negative counter-narrative.

What you see with the Palin pick, from a political strategy point of view, is I think the McCain campaign’s focus on winning the news cycle taken to a myopic and senseless extreme. The case for Palin in news cycle terms, is pretty good:

  1. Crazy pick utterly stomps on the Democratic Convention as a news story.
  2. Choosing a woman gives the tired PUMA story new legs.
  3. Crazy pick confuses Democratic oppo research and gets into Obama OODA loop.
  4. Palin is a hard-right conservative who the base loves so no dissonance.
  • Crazy pick fits “maverick” image.But when you think about points two and four more seriously, the pick doesn’t make sense. There really are self-identified Democrats who seem resistant to Barack Obama. But there’s very little evidence that their resistance is driven by their ovaries. It’s actually a disproportionately male group. Instead, Obama-skeptical Democrats are older, hawkish, and perhaps not buying Obama as an economic populist. Is going with a young, transparently underqualifed woman with orthodox economic views really such a great way to reach these people? In fact, it’s a terrible way. And the other three Palin virtues, from a news cycle POV, all depend on the fact that it would be crazy to pick Sarah Palin.
  • Which leaves you, basically, with the fact that this is a crazy pick. In particular, it goes against the image McCain is trying to paint of himself as the serious, sober-minded choice in difficult times. This is not a “country first” pick, it’s an “I have a personal beef with Mitt Romney” pick. Nor does a VP whose most noteworthy quality is that she’s less corrupt than other Alaska Republicans do anything to distance McCain from Bushism — we’ve now gone from one alleged maverick who agrees with Bush about everything to two alleged mavericks who agree with Bush about everything. And that’s all really the best case scenario — normally VP choices don’t make much of a difference politically, but a VP candidate with no experience dealing with the national media who the candidate himself has barely spoken to risks an Eagelton Scenario. Nobody’s going to care in two months about the good coverage on the morning of August 29, but they might care about some horrific gaffe or skeleton in the closet.
  • Most fundamentally, I think this pick violates the contemporary understanding of the role of the Vice Presidency. With the exception of the four Bush-Quayle years, ever since 1977 we’ve had a POTUS-VPOTUS team that features a charismatic outsider at the top of the ticket (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II) backed by a seasoned Washington hand (Mondale, Bush I, Gore, Cheney) with “charismatic outsiderishness” generally being an asset, but an asset whose value is enhanced by showing some humility and good sense by bringing a veteran on board. McCain is reaching back to an outdated model of casually made choices. It’s hardly a crippling blow to the campaign, as such, but over time it’s going to seem increasingly dissonant — it looks and feels wrong, not at all like what we’ve come to expect from a Vice President.