The disparate media attention due to the recent (current as of this writing) overseas trip by Barack Obama, along with recent polling data, has highlighted a potentially major weakness in the McCain campaign. Our opponent excites people above, beyond, and outside the scope of logical reasoning. He enamors, hypnotizes, and woos them. He has clear strengths in terms of charisma and presence. The July 21 NBC/WSJ poll shows that 44% of likely Obama voters are excited about their candidate. This compares to just 14% for John McCain. Meanwhile, on the same questions, only 22% of likely Obama voters choose their candidate as merely the lesser of two evils, whereas fully 43% of McCain supporters do so.
John McCain does not match Obama’s charisma and charm. That’s OK. Above all, he should not try to. He definitely should not try. To do so would be obvious. It would immediately convince the media and the electorate that we think these things are central, or at least more important than they really are. Their importance would be elevated, and the battle would shift to an arena of Obama’s liking. It would be like running against Lance Armstrong and saying, “Hey, let’s settle this election with a bike race,” and then deluding ourselves into believing that with training and discipline, we could really compete. No, let him have his strengths. But let them be deprecated.
And indeed, there is great advantage to be had by leaving things as they are. Obama appeals to people’s emotions and transcends their sense of reason to gain their support. That transcendence is a weakness and a viable target, but it cannot be attacked directly. To attempt such a frontal assault belittles us and our candidate, as the past week of complaining over media coverage has shown. Slapping someone in the face and telling them that they’re not thinking is no way to gain their support. What’s more, it’s been tried and availed little.
As the press has fawned over Obama this past week, the inability of our party to garner attention has highlighted our candidate’s weakness in the area of personal appeal and excitement. We are not connecting with people on an emotional level, as the aforementioned poll results show. But that is something that can be done in many ways and on many different levels. Excitement induced by hollow rhetoric is perhaps the least substantive of these, and we can do far, far better than that.
Finally, we have no resounding, crystal clear message—no resonating theme. John Kerry paid dearly for this with his “at least I’m not George Bush” approach. What would the people say if asked what John McCain and the Republican Party stand for?
We need a major issue that we can call our own—one that can serve as an identifying goal of this campaign and this party—one that can unite all those on the right while drawing strong support from the left as well—one that can distance us from the unpopular misperception of what conservatism stands for and has or hasn’t done recently.
We could go out and find one from our traditional grab bag. But that wouldn’t be novel. Voters would not be surprised. They would not sense change coming.
What would be far better—more satisfying in every way, and ultimately more effective—would be to steal one from our opponents. There’s a good one out there. They think they’ve got it licked and have total ownership over it. They think they’ve slain it, and its head is hanging on their wall. But they’ve done it a great injustice, and it’s looking to change camps.