At their most basic levels, presidential campaigns are storytelling wars. After John Kerry lost the 2004 election, the Democratic strategist James Carville summed up his candidate's problem this way: "There's a Republican narrative," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And there's a Democratic litany."
His point was that Kerry had campaigned on a laundry list of specific issues that all polled well clean air, better schools and more health care, to name a few but failed to inspire. George W. Bush, by contrast, campaigned on a story fully intended to appeal as much to the heart as the brain. In the Republican tale, Bush was a strong leader ready to take on a dangerous world, while Kerry was a "flip-flopper" who held his finger to the wind. Or as Carville crudely put it, Bush effectively told the country, "I'm going to protect you from terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood."
Flash-forward four years, and the political dynamic has been turned upside down. Democrat Barack Obama has one of the most remarkable story lines in modern political history: he brands himself as a new, multiracial, principled politician who can change not just the policies of Washington, but the fundamentals of how politics works around the world. "People of Berlin people of the world this is our moment. This is our time," Obama announced last week, before an impressive European throng.
John McCain, meanwhile, has struggled. His own well-known heroic narrative, as a prisoner of war-turned-battle-tested Senator, has been eclipsed by the nation's Obama excitement. A Wall Street Journal poll last week showed that 55% of voters are more focused on Obama in this election, with just 27% of voters more focused on McCain. The Arizona Republican has been reduced to rattling off a list of issues he thinks will help him with voters: a temporary gas tax reprieve, more offshore oil drilling and an energy plan called "The Lexington Project," to name a few.
For a long time, Republicans inside and outside the campaign have griped privately about the need to find their story line. And there have been fierce debates about how to do it. Some of McCain's former advisers have said that McCain needs to stick to his historic strengths, his maverick, straight-talking approach, which appeals to the political center. Others have urged McCain to charge at Obama head-on. If the race is going to be about Obama, they reason, then Obama must be taken down.
Now the debate has come to an end, and the more aggressive approach has clearly won out. The McCain campaign, under the direction of its new leader, Steve Schmidt, has settled on a story line that could last through the election. It is, at root, an experience argument, adjusted to undercut the enormous enthusiasm that Obama generates. It can be seen in the recent McCain campaign ad that compares Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, or the recent Republican Party ad that compares Obama to David Hasselhoff. It can be seen in the recent self-deprecating distribution of "junior varsity" press passes for reporters on the McCain campaign and in the daily discussion of Obama as "The One" by McCain aides.
It is an argument that amounts to this: Barack Obama is a huge phenomenon, but he does not have the experience, or the judgment, to lead the country. In fact, he is just another politician, an empty suit, who will do whatever he needs, and make as many vague but eloquent speeches as he has to, to get elected. John McCain, on the other hand, is a proven, principled leader you already know.
In a conference call on Wednesday with reporters, the campaign laid out its cards. "It's beyond dispute that he has become the biggest celebrity in the world," Schmidt said of Obama. "The question we are posing to the American people is this: Is he ready to lead?"
"Do the American people want to elect the world's biggest celebrity or do they want to elect an American hero, somebody who is a leader, somebody who has the right ideas to deal in a serious way with the problems we face?" Schmidt continued. "And that will be the fundamental choice that Americans will make as they focus in on who to elect the 44th President of the United States 97 days from now."
McCain's new story line speaks directly at the apparent concerns of a vast swath of voters who are still hesitant about supporting Obama, despite their disapproval of recent Republican policies and an unpopular Republican President. But it also carries a risk for McCain, because at a time of great economic anxiety, when voters claim to be eager to hear positive solutions, it is fundamentally negative in tone a pose that McCain has been less comfortable with in the past.
On Wednesday afternoon, after the ad with Spears was released, Obama adviser David Axelrod struck back along these lines. "It makes you wonder who's behind all this, because this isn't the John McCain we expected," Axelrod said in an interview on MSNBC. Obama himself chimed in at a campaign stop in Missouri. "He doesn't seem to have anything to say very positive about himself," Obama said of McCain. "He seems to only be talking about me. You need to ask John McCain what he's for and not just what he's against."
A former McCain adviser, John Weaver, also expressed worry to the Atlantic Monthly that the spot would make McCain look "childish" and "diminish the brand." On the other side of the argument, Republican strategists worry that the new approach may not be enough to take down Obama, especially in the absence of a third-party group, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. "They have managed to scare off outside groups," said one veteran party strategist of McCain's, who, as a longtime supporter of campaign finance reform, is opposed to such third-party spending. "The outside groups have always been able to say what the candidate cannot."
The new McCain story line has also been hurt by factual problems in many of their charges, which could cause McCain problems over time. One advertisement, which included the chants of Obama supporters, accused Obama of being responsible for high gas prices, a claim without evidence to back it up. Another suggested that Obama avoided meeting with troops in Germany because he could not bring along the media to make it a photo op. In truth, Obama canceled the meeting because he did not want to be accused of holding a campaign event with wounded soldiers.
But these developments are certain to be less important over time than the fact that the McCain campaign, for better or worse, has finally settled on a story line that could carry the presumptive Republican nominee through the convention and into November. As a second Republican strategist put it late Wednesday afternoon, "They at least have somewhat of a message." And for one of the first times in months, the campaign has managed to maintain that message for almost two weeks in a row.