GOP continues to embrace change argument, bets on Palin

Two days ago, I marveled at the McCain campaign’s sudden and dramatic embrace of a new strategy: No more experience argument or attack on Obama’s readiness to lead and an all-out assault on his slogan of change. If until last week the GOP was saying that it should not be blamed for the failures of the Bush Administration, its new argument is much more radical - that it is more apt at taking the country in a new direction.

There are two parts of this strategy: argue that “liberal” Democrats are part of the problem and that Obama would represent “more of the same” and convince voters that McCain is running as the anti-Bush. The first post-convention ad McCain unveiled on Saturday was meant to advance the former goal, and its new spot (released this morning) is an aggressive attempt at advancing the latter. John McCain and Sarah Palin are the “original mavericks:”

The ad lists Palin and McCain’s credentials as reformers intent on taking on Washington as if they were the ultimate outsiders. One claim is sure to inflame Democrats and hopefully will also shake up the press: The ad says that Palin stopped the “bridge to nowhere” despite the fact that numerous reports have shown that she campaigned on a pro-bridge platform in her gubernatorial bid just 18 months ago. The Obama campaign quickly came out with a release pointing out that the ad is a “lie” and some media outlets seem to be willing to call McCain out on it.

I was already puzzled that Palin chose to reiterate that claim in her acceptance speech last Wednesday, but it now seems clear that the GOP is daring Democrats to go after Palin, as they are eager to focus the attention on the bottom of their ticket.

In fact, this seems to be the GOP’s entire gamble at the moment - that the electorate is going to focus on Palin. The very obvious risk of McCain’s talking about change this much is that voters associate that word with the Obama campaign, not only because it has become his slogan but also because of his race, youth and party label. For the McCain campaign to now be this confident that it can wrestle away the change mantle means that they believe Palin will counter Obama’s advantages because of her gender, her youth and her atypical profile - and by portraying her as an outsider who has battled the Alaska GOP, they hope to make her seem as an anti-Bush maverick the way McCain isn’t being able to.

Like everything else about Palin, this is a huge gamble. For one, there is no precedent for voters thinking enough about a vice-presidential candidate to compare her to a presidential nominee. Second, there is little evidence for now that Palin is proving strong among independents, though there is no question that she is a force among the GOP base. Third, this means that the McCain campaign is betting a lot of its strategy on a candidate who is untested at the national stage.

But Marc Ambinder points out that the fact that it has never happened before does not mean that it cannot happen now. Palin is generating a lot of coverage in the final stretch of the election - that in itself is unprecedented and gives McCain a fighting change to wrestle the change mantle away from Obama. If McCain’s Palin strategy succeeds, he could gain a significant advantage among independents which would put him at the top when combined with the boost in enthusiasm among the Republican base.

In the wake of the McCain campaign’s shift, down-the-ballot Republicans are following his lead. For much of the past few months, Norm Coleman has been focused on attacking Al Franken to disqualify him in the minds of voters. His latest spot brings back the bowling alley character his campaign introduced a few months back, but this time the argument has changed, as the man touts Coleman’s “gift” to bring the two parties together:

As long as Republicans don’t go as far as Gordon Smith’s ads embracing Obama, these down-the-ballot ads will amplify the McCain campaign’s argument that the GOP is no longer Bush’s party and that independents can trust Republicans once again. But there is also a risk here: Won’t McCain’s claim that he is an atypical politican, an original maverick be hurt if all Republicans start making the same argument?

18 Responses to “GOP continues to embrace change argument, bets on Palin”


  1. 1 Steven J. Berke

    I’m really beginning to think that, contrary to what seems the prevailing strategic assumption, the Obama campaign is going to have to attack Palin head on–Lord knows there’s enough stuff to attack her on–and do it before her favorable image sets in stone (reinforced quite likely by the upcoming Charlie Gibson interview). With the pop culture cable outlets going into raptures about her, it’s no good assuming past assumptions about a VP candidate will hold.

  2. 2 Mr. Rational

    Regarding Sarah Palin, no vice-presidential candidate in history has enjoyed the position she has now. First is the historic nature of her candidacy — not as historic as was Geraldine Ferraro’s, but then again, Ferraro was running as the bottom half of a ticket that was doomed to defeat in a way few others have been. So when it comes to how her presence will affect the election, I highly doubt we have any usable benchmarks.

    Second, I think Palin may actually be gaining benefits from the backlash on the media coverage of Hillary Clinton. The McCain camp seems to be trying to play directly into the perception of Clinton as having been the victim of sexist treatment (some of which was, most of which wasn’t) by saying that the media will now be treating Palin in the same fashion (some of them will be, most of them won’t). If this gets hold, Palin will be well nigh untouchable.

    Finally, Palin does indeed give McCain a huge advantage in that she is being directly compared to Obama. If they are on the same level experience-wise, and McCain is senior to Palin, then McCain clearly wins the experience battle. Plus, there’s some nifty little packing here, such that I believe most voters are getting the impression that you can have “McCain-Palin” or you can have “Obama.” Biden has been effectively marginalized at the moment. Experience plus change, or change all by itself, is an interesting set of options.

    As far as McCain’s new campaign narrative goes, I have mixed feelings. There is no doubt that he has earned his maverick reputation (Obama’s continual, and misleading, “90% with Bush” crack notwithstanding). There are certainly maverick elements in Palin’s story as well…she basically won office in Alaska by running as “the Republican you can trust”…so this should work with her, too. And with Congress’s approval ratings where they are, McCain might be able to pull the congressional Democrats into the mire of being too “Washington.” What I am unsure of is whether he can get any of that to rub off on Obama, who has (as the McCain camp has continuously pointed out) not been in Washington very long. People may wind up getting furious at Congress in general, but giving Obama a pass because of his recent arrival.

    Finally, Taniel, I don’t think all Republicans WILL start making the “maverick” claim. Coleman, being a red senator from a blue state, can credibly make it. So could Susan Collins and people of that ilk. Look for incumbent Republicans in blue areas of the country, fighting to hold onto their seats, to employ it. But I highly doubt that Roger Wicker or Jim Inhofe, to pick two examples, will be running on anything other then good-old-fashioned GOP affiliation. They couldn’t do otherwise. And it’ll be enough for both of them. “Maverick” is a label that only makes sense with certain types of politicians in certain regions…

  3. 3 drg3750

    If democrats aren’t nervous about McCain’s new Change mantra, then they should be. Palin has proved to be an exciting candidate to many voters who were wavering on McCain, and McCain is claiming credit on that (rightfully so). This makes him a credible agent of change to many: his VP choice was original and appealing, and as president he will continue to make decisions that shake up the status quo.

    What can democrats do to counter this? A number of things. Continue to tie McCain to Bush. I also think that Palin can be tied to Cheney, as a shadowy nefarious figure, not trustworthy, with questionable goals, and an over-reaching ambition. It’s a risky strategy because the dems can be accused of being sexist by attacking Palin.

    I agree with you that this election is unlike any other. McCain’s VP selection has changed the entire game, with large and enthusiastic crowds now turning out, not to see McCain but to see Palin. The election is now a toss-up.

  4. 4 Ben

    The strategy is breathtaking in its boldness. McCain-Palin is trying to wrest away the “change” message from Obama-Biden. Could it work, who knows?

    I’m also surprised the McCain Campaign keeps pushing the idea that Palin opposed the bridge to nowhere. The thinking must be if they say it enough people will believe it even if it is wrong. But Maybe it will work. To the media’s credit they have pointed out that this is not true. Certainly many people believed Iraq had something to with 9/11 despite all the media reporting to the contrary.

  5. 5 fritz

    The McCain campaign seems to be evolving into a Palin/McCain ticket with Palin has the nominee and McCain as some sort of senior advisor.
    Of course this is crazy because if they did prevail Palin would disappear into a Dan Quail role and Leibermann & Graham would be the main power brokers in theWhite House.
    Palin would immedately start the campaign for 2012 (assuming McCain decides not to run) against Jindal, Huckabee and Mittens.
    Obama must bring the campaign back to an argument on judgement with McCain and ignore Palin. As long as the press is willing to give Palin the same media coverage as Obama it helps McCain.
    One other thing to note. I don’t know how long John McCain and, even more so, Cindy McCain will put up with playing second fiddle to Palin. Neither are noted as lacking egos and I expect they will not be happy with the constant Palin adoration.

  6. 6 Teezy

    Palin did end-up opposing the bridge, so the Obama camp is not being entirely honest about it either. Actually, calling her opposition a “lie” is a lie itself. The questions regarding the change are when and why: Was it post-VP announcement (a couple weeks ago) or post-governor election (a couple years ago)? The former would indicate it was due more to politics and the other more principle. It occurred, in fact, after her election. So why turn against the bridge-to-nowhere? Because she was running for national office? Nope. She was newly elected and at that time no one (including the gov herself) could have guessed that she would be running for VP two years later. Did she do it to garner greater popularity in Alaska? Doubtful. Since when is smacking a popular earmark among constituents expected to raise poll numbers?
    Maybe she did to defend her state from it increasingly bad reputation. Maybe she did it because she thought the state could take on a greater financial responsibility for such projects. Maybe with a broader perspective as governor she saw that her reform agenda needed to be brought to earmarks as well. I don’t know, but I suspect that we’ll get an explanation straight from the governor herself during the ABC interview this week. With this latest issue, its clear that the Obama campaign is again grasping for straws in how to deal with Palin. Really, didn’t Obama learn not to call people liars after his Saddleback debacle?

  7. 7 dsimon

    Teezy: Palin did end-up opposing the bridge, so the Obama camp is not being entirely honest about it either. Actually, calling her opposition a “lie” is a lie itself. The questions regarding the change are when and why

    Well, if you’re really curious, you could look it up….

    The question is not whether she opposed the bridge in the end. The question is whether she was truthful when she said she said “Thanks but no thanks” to the funds. It sure sounds like she said “Thanks!” and then a year later said “No thanks!” when it got more publicity.

    She supported the project for over a year before changing her mind:

    “Palin’s 2007 press release announcing her change of course came just a month after McCain himself slammed the Ketchikan bridge for taking money that could have been used to shore up dangerous bridges like one that collapsed in Minnesota.” http://www.adn.com/sarahpalin/story/511471.html

    I believe it’s well-established that she lauded the Alaska delegation for bringing pork projects to her state.

    And there’s no dispute that the state kept all the federal money anyway. Your tax dollars at work

  8. 8 Robert_V

    fritz // September 8, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    “The McCain campaign seems to be evolving into a Palin/McCain ticket with Palin has the nominee and McCain as some sort of senior advisor.”

    Not so. The ticket is what it is, folks know who they are voting for, and who is on top of both tickets. The problem for the punditry, and most of the most ardent Obama followers is that McCain changed the narrative and put Obama on the spot when he pulled Sarah Palin out oh his hat. As soon as I heard she has been selected as the VP nominee I knew that the comparisons to Obama were inescapable. But Obama is not running for VP. So in a sense, just by being there, as Chauncey Gardener was, she diminishes Obama. Just listen carefully and you will be able to hear. We know Palin is a empty suit, and Obama is a more polished empty suit. I just don’t understand why is so difficult for the MSM and the punditry to see that! Some of those folks should get out more often and listen to the common Joes! The American people are not stupid. Palin-McCain cannot get elected to dog catcher. As much as it pains the Obama followers, by now is clear that the change thing is just silly and vacuous! So vacuous that even McCain the ultimate beltway pro is hanging to it. In the end Hillary will be proven right, experience matters. There is a clear feeling out there that McCain is the grown up in this election. Obama is one international crisis away from being blow away in this election. And the super delegates that allowed this travesty to happen should be drawn and quartered! Well perhaps that is to harsh….

  9. 9 dsimon

    Ben: McCain-Palin is trying to wrest away the McCain-Palin is trying to wrest away the “change” message from Obama-Biden. Could it work, who knows?

    I think Biden had the right idea on Meet The Press: point out over and over that whatever Palin and McCain’s reputation as “mavericks,” they offer nothing new on the policy front. Health care? Same as Bush. Economy? Same as Bush. Foreign policy? Same as Bush. How can you be an agent of “change” when your policies represent no change?

    Mr. Rational says McCain has earned his maverick reputation. I think that was true in 2000, but I haven’t seen it much in the past two years. He’s reversed himself on the Bush tax cuts. He wouldn’t vote for his own immigration bill. He’s voted against funds for alternative energy. I’ll give him credit for saying he’d close Guantanamo and for supporting carbon cap-and-trade. But otherwise, I don’t see much of a maverick in him these days.

    And if the Democrats can make that point, they can and should win. On all the major issues, McCain-Palin would continue the policies that got us where we are today. If we want different outcomes, we have to start making different decisions.

    Or we can go “Ooooh, Palin can field dress a moose!” ignore the issues, and get what we deserve in the end for doing so.

    Certainly many people believed Iraq had something to with 9/11 despite all the media reporting to the contrary.

    According to polling, 75% of Bush supporters thought Saddam had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, either directly or by providing support, going into the 2004 election. I find it hard to believe that if more people had accurate information, that election would have turned out differently despite Kerry’s atrocious campaign.

  10. 10 dsimon

    As much as it pains the Obama followers, by now is clear that the change thing is just silly and vacuous! So vacuous that even McCain the ultimate beltway pro is hanging to it. In the end Hillary will be proven right, experience matters.

    What’s the support for that? On health care, the Democratic ticket supports change. The Republican ticket does not. On the economy, the Democratic ticket supports change. The Republican ticket thinks every problem can be solved by another tax cut (which they have no idea how to pay for). On foreign policy, the Democratic ticket believes we can’t make progress without talking to people. The Republican ticket wants to continue the policy of not talking and getting no results. That’s vacuous?

    It’s the experience card that’s vacuous. Bush had plenty of executive experience, no? Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz…some of the most experienced people out there. The Bush administration had experience out the wazoo. And how did that work out for the past 7 years? Just because they had experience didn’t mean they didn’t have lousy judgment.

    And experience is valuable only insofar as it informs policies and judgment. If the Democrats can get enough swing voters to focus on what is really important, they should win. Experience isn’t going to save people’s houses. Experience isn’t going to fix our health care system. Experience won’t build infrastructure. It’s what people are going to do that matters, not how long they’ve been doing something regardless of what it was.

    Democrats win on public support on policy issue after policy issue. If people vote on that, they should win. If the election turns on empty phrases like “experience” and personalities, it’s going to be a tough haul.

  11. 11 fritz

    Teezy: Whether Palin supported the bridge or not doesn’t really matter in election politics. Think Kerry and “he voted for it before he voted against it”. The only thing that matters is that she flipflopped. The reason is not important. The fact that she denied flipflopping in the ad means she can be called a liar as well as a flipflopper. All’s fare in politics.

  12. 12 Teezy

    “Think Kerry and “he voted for it before he voted against it”.”
    - That only became a problem for him because he actually spoke the words “I voted for it before I voted against it”, and worse, he spoke them on video. What was a procedural vote became a self-made narrative for his opponents. Not exactly a comparable situation to Palin’s.

    “The fact that she denied flipflopping in the ad means she can be called a liar as well as a flipflopper. ”
    - She didn’t deny anything in the ad. The claim was she opposed it, which technically she did. It will be up to the Democrats to use her earlier position and a motivation of politics to make her out to be a flipflopper, and without a Kerry-esque statement from Palin, that won’t be easy.

    After the left has been savaged by falsely calling Palin a liar in regards to her youngest child, and Obama falsely calling the NRLC liars for correctly citing his voting record on the born-alive issue, you’d think that liberals would not use the terms lie/liar so liberally (no pun indented). Haven’t they ever heard of the boy who cried wolf?

  13. 13 Robert_V

    dsimion, if did not know better I would say you are working for the Obama campaign!! You make my point about the disconnect of Obama supporters with reality. Reciting the long litany of Obama campaign rebuttals to the experience issue will not change the reality that people are looking at the issue now, and find Obama wanting. I would like to see Obama win this election, because he is the democratic candidate, not because I think he is the better man for the job. If a wet sock was the Democratic candidate I would vote for the wet sock!! But we have exchanged messages before, and you well know that I predicted this was going to happen. I don’t know what your background is, whether you are young or old, rich or poor or none of the above. I recognize that you believe, and are very committed to change, as the Obama campaign spouse it. The whole ball of wax worked fine against Hillary, but the electorate in the general election is a different crowd. I insist, Obama is one international crisis away from disaster. You can wish it was not. You can ask for proof and evidence, where none is, because politics is not the arena of legalism and evidence, but the real of perception. Last time we elected a Democratic president was a centrist moderate. Might taste like bile to the move-on crowd, but that is the way to win.

  14. 14 dsimon

    Think Kerry and “he voted for it before he voted against it”.

    Kerry did a lousy job defending his votes. They were two separate votes. He voted for the version that actually supported the troops.

    He could have said: “I voted to tax wealthy people like myself to actually get the money to send to the troops. Bush supported the version that keeps tax cuts for people like himself while we borrow the money to send to the troops. So which of us really supports the troops?”

    Why he just let the line sit there is one example of what a lousy campaign he ran.

  15. 15 dsimon

    Reciting the long litany of Obama campaign rebuttals to the experience issue will not change the reality that people are looking at the issue now, and find Obama wanting….politics is not the arena of legalism and evidence, but the real of perception.

    And instead of catering to false perceptions, we can at least make an effort to make people aware of true perceptions.

    When McCain and Palin call themselves change agents, call them on their b.s. It has the advantage of attacking their credibility and the bonus of being true.

    Tell people if we want experience, they can vote for the Bush administration all over again. They’ve got experience. Is that what people want? Ask them.

    The point is not to change everyone’s mind. The point is to go after those swing voters who might actually be paying some attention. Say the Republicans want to talk experience because they’ve got no health care plan. Say the Republicans want to talk experience because they’ve got no way to save people’s homes. Say the Republicans want to talk experience because they’ve got no answers for you and your families.

    You say that people are focusing on experience, and that Obama loses on experience, but I don’t see what you offer as a solution. It seems to me that if you are correct and Obama loses on experience, then you’ve got to change the topic to one where Obama wins. May as well call the opponents on their experience b.s. and shift it to areas where Democrats consistently lead in all polling.

    Or do you suggest something else?

  16. 16 Anonymous

    I am very disgusted by the tactics of the Republicans. Why should applying for the highest office in the land be based on lies and deceptions fed to gullible, impulsive Americans? I wish there was a federal law holding all candidates from all parties accountable for decept and lies.

  17. 17 Mr. Rational

    Re: the comment immediately above, isn’t it funny how you can substitute “Democrats” for “Republicans” and the sentence still has the same truth value?

  18. 18 dsimon

    isn’t it funny how you can substitute “Democrats” for “Republicans” and the sentence still has the same truth value?

    Perhaps, though I don’t know if the scale is the same.

    But even if it were, who is to blame? Seems to me that there are far too many people who put loyalty to their “team” (party) over honesty. If that’s the way most people behave, that’s what the parties are going to do.

    As Michael Kinsley has said, if people voted against dishonesty, it would stop. That’s democracy.

    But it seems to me that there’s a considerable number of people who don’t care about the truth as long as they get their candidate. And since it’s a representative democracy, it seems inconsistent to me to complain when the parties do what people really want them to do.

    As with most problems we face in politics, the problem isn’t “them,” its us. We want “them” to make tough decisions, but still want to be fed lines about how we’re not going to have to do anything for the things we say we want.

    When enough of us decide we want to be responsible again, so will the parties. Until then, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.

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