I keep seeing so many pundits and commenters trying to grapple with Senator John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his VP, and the dichotomous nature of their speeches at the GOP convention, that I thought I'd explain what is going on.
Here's what you need to know:
1) John McCain intends to win the Presidency; all decisions are subordinated to that end.
2) He realizes that no conventional strategy stands a good chance at overcoming Senator Barack Obama's momentum, and that he first has to throw the Obama campaign off its game before he can play his own.
3) As Obama rejected the Clinton 50% plus one strategy early on for the Howard Dean 50-state strategy, McCain has rejected the typically Karl Rove strategy of staking his bid on cultural war and the war on terro in the battleground states.
Instead, McCain plans a major departure from previous strategies.
Here's some background.
Traditionally, both major candidates run to their base in the primaries and back to the center in the General Election, which is simply a reflection of how the system is structured: the base gets to decide the candidates, but the undecided middle gets to decide the election. That's why the candidates rarely give each other too much crap about what they said during primary season, and why they start to sound a lot more like each other by mid-October.
In 2004 something radically different happened. Both the GOPers and the Dems realized that 2000 had left them facing a terribly polarized electorate, with the usual 12-14% undecided reduced to less than 6%. For both parties, in 2004, there were actually more votes available by thoroughly pandering to the base than by moving to the middle.
So Dubya and Kerry both kept moving away from each other, toward their respective bases throughout the fall.
This year, McCain realizes that two differences pertain:
1) The undecided vote is back in the 12-14% range, but is leaning Democratic.
2) The base is not solidly behind him.
This left McCain with a dilemma: run for the base and lose the undecideds. Court the undecideds and probably not get more than 4 of the outstanding 12%, while losing at least 3-4% off the base. Result: Obama landslide.
But Obama, by pursuing the 50-state strategy early (although he is now quietly backing off from it), gave McCain an opening to something unprecedented: run in both directions simultaneously.
Sarah Palin gives McCain back his base, and also gives him the perfect surrogate to go into small towns in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and etc. to shore up and hold the traditional red states. She can throw out the red meat that the social conservatives are dying for, and she assures their allegiance to the ticket no matter what McCain is saying elsewhere.
And every minute, every dollar, every answer the Obama campaign spends on refuting her or answering her is time they're not spending on him.
McCain, on the other hand, is now free to rebrand the GOP in the battleground states, and if his speech on Thursday is any indication, here's how he intends to do it:
1) Both parties let you down in the last eight years. Republicans started acting like Democrats in terms of tax and spend and control your life. Dubya's "new tone" got destroyed by partisans on both sides of the aisle, and you need someone who can unite everyone to put Washington back into correct function. Rebranding step one: reinforcing the Maverick as an outsider to allow him to run against Washington in the traditional western Republican Reagan sense.
2) Did you catch that part about taking the best ideas from both parties? What McCain intends to do is co-opt many of Obama's ideas with this message: When I'm President, I'll reach out across the aisle and take the best of the liberals ideas and meld them with the conservatives into workable policy. I appreciate that Senator Obama has lots of great ideas, and I want those ideas for the good of America. But Senator Obama's ideas are no good without my experience to get the deals done.
3) This narrative is then supported by McCain's new narrative of America's loyal but imperfect servant. He's got this Christ-like narrative of being born again as a servant of his country in Vietnam that Obama can't touch, and if it plays the way McCain intends, it will carefully distance him from Dubya.
4) The shared talking point between McCain and Palin--and virtually the only truly coordinated shared talking point between them--is that Obama intends to raise your taxes. This issue is a loser for Obama, who has listened for too long to the progressives and believes that what they want to hear is also what most Americans want to hear.
Obama has this wonkish streak in him (shared by Biden) that will lead to either (a) over-complicated or (b) sarcastic answers when attacked on his tax plans. In saying, my plan gives tax breaks to 95% of the American people, Obama rhetorically leaves himself open to the following rejoinders:
A) But the 5% you're raising taxes on already pay a disproportionate share of the taxes in America (true or not, who cares, this is lying with statistics country).
B) Even if your income tax plan reduces some taxes, your proposal gives us deficits even before you start adding programs, and you're going to have to raise taxes to pay for all of them--your wife said so--pie and all that.
Neither of these charges can be easily refuted with a ten-second sound bite.
In addition, McCain believes that Obama has made a serious miscalculation in regard to universal health care. In the general election it is not a significant issue. It was so important to the Dem base, and so important in beating Hillary, that again Obama has listened to the progressives and drawn the erroneous conclusion that it's a winner in November. It's not, and here's why:
The people to whom health care matters most as an issue are already in the Democratic base, and they are essentially captive voters, like gays or African-Americans. They aren't going anywhere.
The key undecideds are mostly middle-class, not poor or working poor, and they all pretty much have health insurance.
The other reason this is potentially a loser issue for Obama is that nobody believes he can get it through even a Democratic congress. Bill and Hillary couldn't; and trying went a long way toward empowering the Revolution of 1994.
This, then, is the McCain plan for victory. It is risky. People may stumble onto the dichotomy between the values she's promoting and the party he's trying to rebrand. His worst nightmare has to be that Obama will call him on it in the debates: "Senator McCain: how come you sound like such a reasonable moderate up here on stage, but you selected a social conservative pit bull for your running mate, who really only supports about 50% of your own policy positions?"
But that will never happen, McCain thinks, because every time Obama acknowledges Palin's existence he has to suffer the fact that people now compare him to Palin in terms of experience, while then comparing McCain to Joe Biden.
And when they do that, just the fact that they do that, costs him a few more votes here and there.
I'm not saying this strategy will win. Obama has an awesome ground game going, and this is an inherently good year for Democrats.
But it is ominous for the Democrats that the Palin pick has almost completely thrown the initiative to the McCain campaign.
McCain has already gotten Obama off his game--at least as he is being covered by the MSM, and that's the first step.
Am I right about what McCain's attempting? Give me about three weeks and check back.