If you've heard anything at all about John McCain during the last few weeks, what you've probably heard is that he's losing. His advisers hate each other, the media are ignoring him, and he's getting photographed in golf carts and supermarket cheese aisles while his opponent strikes Kennedyesque poses.
But here's the weird thing: It's kind of working for McCain. He's only trailing by, on average, a few points in the polls. Even after Barack Obama's week of European political masterpiece theater, the Democrat's support barely budged. The reason, I believe, is that Obama is making the enormous mistake of letting the race be entirely about him, which is the only way he can lose.
McCain may be committing lots of blunders, but the blunders aren't hurting him because the spotlight is on Obama. McCain is getting attention for his attacks on Obama, especially his frequent insinuations that Obama lacks patriotism.. Obama has barely hit back. His weak-tea replies express "disappointment" with McCain and reject the "same old politics."
Here's the likely rationale: The public, by a wide margin, wants a Democrat to win the presidency. So all Obama has to do is make himself acceptable and he'll win. Hence the focus on building up his own credentials rather than tearing down McCain.
Perhaps that sounds familiar. Let me refresh your memory: it was Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's campaign strategy in 2004. Four years ago, the conventional wisdom had it that a majority of voters would reject President Bush, so winning was just a matter of Kerry proving himself as an alternative. People "are looking for some change," one pollster put it at the time, "but the change has to be acceptable. John Kerry has to prove he is acceptable."
So rather than attack Bush, Kerry focused on defining himself. The Democratic National Convention was a model of civility and positive focus. The Republican National Convention, on the other hand, was a full-throated assault on Kerry. I don't need to remind you how it all turned out.
Why is Obama-as-alternative failing? First, it ignores Bush. The reason people want a Democrat is that they deem Bush a failure. By letting the race become a referendum on Obama, Bush recedes in voters' minds. McCain's ad blaming Obama for high gas prices was preposterous, but you can see why he ran it. The media are covering Obama as if he's already president. So what's that Obama guy done about high gas prices, anyway? Let's vote the bum out and give McCain a shot!
Second, negative ads work better than positive ads. In focus groups, voters insist they hate negative ads, because that sounds virtuous. Yet studies show the negative advertisements are the ones they remember.
To go on the attack, Obama doesn't need to engage in character assassination and baseless charges, as his opponent has done. All he needs to do is stop letting McCain paint a wildly distorted self-portrait. McCain wants voters to see him as a maverick who never changes positions for political reasons. One ad touts the way he bucked Bush on the environment. It doesn't mention that McCain has abandoned the climate-change bill he co-sponsored, demanded wider drilling and a gas-tax holiday that would undermine the goal of burning less fossil fuel, and started raking in huge sums from oil companies.
McCain has de-emphasized or reversed nearly every position that set him apart from Bush, most notably the tax cuts for the rich that are the heart of Bush's economic program.
And when an interviewer suggested that McCain was different from Bush, the senator replied, "No. No. I — the fact is that I'm different, but the fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush."
Why haven't we seen these words in television ads?
Obama's strategy seems predicated on convincing voters that they really, really like the inexperienced black guy with the foreign-sounding name. Convincing them not to vote for the other guy, the one who embraces the least popular president in modern history, sounds like a better bet to me.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics. His e-mail address is [email protected] columnists.com.