Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 3, 2008

GIVING UP ON ISSUES ALTOGETHER.... Just five months ago, after John McCain had already secured the Republican nomination, his campaign manager, Rick Davis, issued a memo to supporters encouraging them to stick to the issues, and avoid getting into fights over Barack Obama's middle name. Davis said McCain is committed to running a "campaign based on the issues." He added that all Republicans should run "a respectful campaign focused on the issues."

That was March. In September, Davis thinks "the issues" are overrated.

Rick Davis, campaign manager for John McCain's presidential bid, insisted that the presidential race will be decided more over personalities than issues during an interview with Post editors this morning.

"This election is not about issues," said Davis. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

I'm not convinced that Davis is wrong on a practical level -- most voters probably don't follow politics well enough to know the candidates' stands on key issues -- but it is striking to see Davis make this argument out loud and on the record. Political professionals usually like to maintain the fiction that policies count more than personalities. Davis isn't just arguing to the contrary, he's insisting that personalities should count more than policies. Is it me, or is this a strikingly cynical message for a campaign manager to offer?

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, not surprisingly, pounced. "We appreciate Senator McCain's campaign manager finally admitting that his campaign is not in fact about the issues the American people care about, which is exactly the kind of cynical old politics people are ready to change," Plouffe said.

Nevertheless, if last night was any indication, it's clear that "the issues" are the very last thing Republicans want to talk about. As Dana Goldstein noted, "[The central message of this Republican National Convention is not] about national security, or tax cuts, or social conservatism. And it's certainly not the message of solidarity with working Americans that the Democrats advanced last week in Denver. Rather, the theme is patriotism, honor, and personal sacrifice. It is amorphous, without many policy specifics."

It seems Republicans don't have much of a choice. They're on the wrong side of "the issues," and if they started to talk about policy specifics, Americans would run in the other direction.

So, we're left with personalities and cultural insecurities. As a consequence, Republicans shouldn't expect much of a mandate if McCain wins -- he's not running on a platform beyond his biography.

Steve Benen 9:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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Anyone hear about the Palin scandal du jour?

Some pastor problem involving Jews for Jesus. (No, I'm not kidding--but I can't find the primary source. Help?)

Posted by: trackrecord on September 3, 2008 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

"voters probably don't follow politics well enough to know the candidates' stands on key issues " This is certainly not helped when Joe Scar-burrow spends his minutes ranting about how there is almost no difference on how the two will govern the nation. PAH-LEASE!!!!!

Posted by: JoyZeeBoy on September 3, 2008 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

There is no way you can look at McCain's alarming flip-flops, or his astonishing narrow-cast of a VP choice, and believe that he or the Republican party have any interest in real issues whatsoever. Their plan is to, once again, make the election about taxes, abortion, guns, gays and god. None of these are issues that effect the daily lives of Americans. [Unless, of course, you're wealthy, fundamentalist and have a pregnant teenaged daughter, want to shoot 30 rounds in 10 seconds, a closeted homosexual or a Christian who hates all other faiths.]

When Obama said the reepers "make big elections about small things," truer words were ne'er spake. And no real issue is a "small thing."

Posted by: chrenson on September 3, 2008 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

What's interesting is that they had to have put together the themes for the convention even before Obama's epic slapdown last Thursday, in order for the speakers to prepare.

Which means, avoiding issues at all costs was the plan all along. Let's face it, that's always been their only prayer.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 3, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

This isn't the first indication that this McCain Inc. doesn't think issues are important. When Obama made the "bitter" comment, many focused on the "clinging to guns and religion" part. McCain focused on the concept that people are not bitter about the economy. And he's made plenty of other comments that suggest he still believes that.

Posted by: Danp on September 3, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

When they can't win on the issues they try to win on personality. Personality is a lot more subjective and it's easier to manipulate perceptions. And if you have someone like McCain who is a loose cannon running alongside an ambitious ideologue like Palin what's left but to go negative on Obama. That's why McCain has hired South Carolina smearmeister Tucker Eskew.

I can already see where this campaign is going in the next eight weeks. The GOP goal will be to say anything that provokes defensiveness from the Obama camp, an unattractive characteristic for a leader, and then turn around and say "See, look at all of Obama's warts. McCain looks more presidential." Making Obama's personality the issue will take the heat off of McCain's weak VP choice.

Dems just need to work through it. Obama has enough character to blunt the expected personal attacks. He just has to keep turning the argument back forcefully to the issues, where polls show Republicans lose out. Also, McCain's weak judgment should come into play at some point without calling his character into question.

Posted by: pj_in_jesusland on September 3, 2008 at 9:58 AM | PERMALINK

March? Here's Davis just a month ago, wanting to talk about issues and not personalities.

Posted by: PeJx on September 3, 2008 at 9:59 AM | PERMALINK

See? I told you George Will was one of the few adults in the GOP:


Posted by: Speed on September 3, 2008 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK
"This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

IOW, this election is about 'race'. If it were about personality or character, we could just declare Obama president now.

Over the coming 2 months, we'd all do well to prepare our gag reflexes for a tremendous workout.

Posted by: on September 3, 2008 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

"clinging to guns and religion"

GOP convention in a nutshell.

Posted by: Lucy on September 3, 2008 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

Hey lookie! Our boy, Steve Benen is getting picked up by CBS!

Go Steve Go!

Posted by: MsMuddler on September 3, 2008 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

So he wants to forget the issues and make this a beauty contest between the candidates? Well, I suppose that does explain the VP pick.

Posted by: Kirk Fields on September 3, 2008 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

Of course they don't want to discuss issues. If they did they might be forced to confront their own (mcsame AND Palin) hyposcrisy on the one issue Palin has seen fit to bring front and center - teenage pregnancy. This from the WP:

washington post
Palin Slashed Funding for Teen Moms
By Paul Kane
ST. PAUL — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee who revealed Monday that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, earlier this year used her line-item veto to slash funding for a state program benefiting teen mothers in need of a place to live.

After the legislature passed a spending bill in April, Palin went through the measure reducing and eliminating funds for programs she opposed. Inking her initials on the legislation — “SP” — Palin reduced funding for Covenant House Alaska by more than 20 percent, cutting funds from $5 million to $3.9 million. Covenant House is a mix of programs and shelters for troubled youths, including Passage House, which is a transitional home for teenage mothers.

According to Passage House’s web site, its purpose is to provide “young mothers a place to live with their babies for up to eighteen months while they gain the necessary skills and resources to change their lives” and help teen moms “become productive, successful, independent adults who create and provide a stable environment for themselves and their families.”

Palin’s own daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant and has plans to wed.

“Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family,” Palin said in a statement released by the McCain campaign. “We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi’s privacy, as has always been the tradition of children of candidates.”

Earlier today the Associated Press reported that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, opposed funding to prevent teen pregnancies, a position that Palin also took as governor. “The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support,” she wrote in a 2006 questionnaire distributed among gubernatorial candidates.

Reporters asked McCain in November 2007 whether he supported grants for sex education in the United States, whether such programs should include directions for using contraceptives and whether he supports President Bush’s policy of promoting abstinence.

“Ahhh, I think I support the president’s policy,” McCain said.

These people are hypocrites who want to make decisions for your family while claiming privacy for their own. I am pissed! Going now to donate money to Obama even though I swore I wouldn't after FISA (my very own personal flip-flop). Palin is a dangerous and corrupt politician. She can't be allowed within 3K miles of the White House.

Posted by: Lori on September 3, 2008 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK


Here you go: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0908/13098.html

Posted by: rusrus on September 3, 2008 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

IOW, this election is about 'race'. If it were about personality or character, we could just declare Obama president now.

Well, duh...
What ELSE would it be about?
(even though it's a spurious issue, because Obama's become effectively 'white,' except for his appearance...As Arthur Silber never tires of pointing out, to wield power in the USofA, it is necessary to be a white male, and Obama's carefully positioning himself in that class...)

Party differences in policy, programs, etc? Well, yeah, if there were any...but we ALL know that on the fundamental issues--not the cheap wedgies, but the global concerns--they're virtually indistinguishable...

Posted by: woody, tokin librul on September 3, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Wrong! McCain is clear on his goal. If he wins we all have a very good chance of being prisoners of war. POW! POW! POW!

Posted by: steve duncan on September 3, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Do they really want to focus on all of McCain's histrionic personality disorders?


Posted by: lou on September 3, 2008 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

This represents the last gasp of a decaying old white boys club. Watching the convention last night on CNN I was taken by the sea of white faces - women with caked on make-up, face-lifts and dyed hair, men with hardened unfeeling eyes. There was no real humanity in the room, merely hollow shells without a conscience. Take this to the bank: the dems will win in a landslide, and the repugs as constituted today may never recover. The massive do-over they require will take at least a decade.

Posted by: Dilbert on September 3, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Ok then,let's make it about personalities. Obama. McCain. Does a muttering, terminal, angry old man win that one?

Posted by: Saint Zak on September 3, 2008 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

rusrus: Thanks! That's the link.

I like the McCain spokesman saying: "“If this is going to be about who was at church on the day of which sermon, that’s not going to be an argument that the Obama campaign is going to win."

As if they haven't been raising that argument against Obama for months ...

Though somehow I imagine that Palin's pastor will never achieve the renown of Obama's. Wonder why.

Posted by: trackrecord on September 3, 2008 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

No one is framing this right. What we saw last night was nothing short of a play for sympathy for John McCain based on his being tortured --um, I mean, enhanced interrogated -- by the North Viet Namese. It's a PITY PARTY. We're supposed to vote for him because we FEEL SORRY FOR HIM.

And by the way, isn't the Big Story from last night (apart from Lieberman's outright lies about Clinton and Obama on reaching across the aisle) the fact that their party's sitting President was reduced to addressing them in an 8 minute video link? Can you imaging the story that would be if it were our party?

Posted by: Jim Pharo on September 3, 2008 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

One more thing -- isn't it news that the Republicans are pretending, as usual during elections, to be Democrats? They want the government to help homeowners, the sick, fix our schools, "shake-up Washington" to deal with the things we want dealt with, etc., etc., etc.

Would it absolutely kill David Gregory to note that the Republicans sure sound a lot like Democrats when they pander to voters?

Posted by: Jim Pharo on September 3, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

So, Rick Davis thinks the public wants a short-tempered guy who'll say anything to get elected to become president and a revenge-minded, pretty woman to back him up.

That's the composite they've been pushing.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on September 3, 2008 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

McCain's propaganda statement for the Vietcong: "I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate."

Posted by: croatoan on September 3, 2008 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit. That's a strategery that has worked real well for the Republicans, and they are sticking with it.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on September 3, 2008 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

Why burden yourself with facts when you can appeal directly to emotions?

Posted by: Ethel-To-Tilly on September 3, 2008 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

The concept of "mandate" is only relevant in a republic (Roman sense of supreme power residing in a body of citizens). With the "unitary executive", i.e. Dear Leader, form) both issues and actions are no longer the provenance of the citizens. Authority is not a "mandate". Not quite on earth as it is in Heaven, since democracy means getting 50%+1 of the relevant votes. Applying democratic decider authority recursively (a majority of the majority determines the majority vote) suggests that it never takes more than 2 people to decide. That slips towards elitist rational arguments so isn't admissible in the discussion however.

The notion that "issues don't matter" may be less cynical and more an honest expression of world view and straight forward appeal to it.

It's good to be Dear Leader.

Posted by: apthorp on September 3, 2008 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

No, no, you're wrong there about McCain not having (or more properly, behaving as if he has) a mandate if he wins. The emphasis on biography frees him to do whatever he wants. The policy positions only rein you in. If you are elected for being John McCain, then whatever John McCain wants to do, and thinks is right, is, by definition right.

Just a mandate to be Bush the bigger, Bush the Badder, Bush the F--- you, you can't make me-er"

Posted by: bluewave on September 3, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of issue-avoidance and flag-wrapping, I humbly submit for gratuitous hype purposes:


Where I do my part to both co-opt the GOP sloganeering and also call attention to one of the policies they're trying to mask.

Speaking of, can anyone here tell me where Kevin got this graphic?:


(posted in http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_08/014355.php )

I'd like to add it to Country Club First, and would appreciate a reply in this thread which I'll check from time to time. (Email tends to get buried, so I may miss an email reply.)

Posted by: poliwog on September 3, 2008 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: erflhkj yszt on September 7, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK



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