Being a Maverick
Right now, things don’t look good for the Republican party. John McCain trails Barack Obama by 5.5 points in the RealClearPolitics national poll average. Obama’s favorable rating is over ten points higher than McCain’s. InTrade market odds put Obama’s chances of winning at nearly 65 percent, and the RCP electoral count gives Obama 238 electoral votes to McCain’s 168.
Things are even worse for Congressional Republicans. Over twenty Republican House members have retired, leaving their seats vulnerable, and the RCP Generic Congressional ballot gives the Democrats an 11.5 point advantage. Even Sen. John Ensign, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said that Republicans should be “running scared.”
So the Republican party is in bad, bad shape. Who does that benefit? John McCain.
During the Republican primary season, radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt was noted for declaring every development in the race benefit for his candidate, Mitt Romney. (Eventually, this devotion led to a hilarious parody by Iowahawk). I’m not as optimistic as Hewitt always was (and, of course, he turned out to be wrong about Mitt’s chances). And it is obvious that the Republican party’s doldrums are a very big advantage to the Obama campaign. But John McCain really can benefit as well.
John McCain runs best as a gritty, underdog maverick. In fact, it is possible that he can only run as a maverick. He is a lousy speechmaker, using odd cadences and strange grimaces in his speeches. He is only a fair debater, and is unlikely to decisively best Obama in any debates of this fall’s debates. (He is much stronger in a townhall format, but Obama wisely, if cravenly, turned down McCain’s offer of a series of townhall debates) He doesn’t make political allies well—in addition to drawing the ire of conservative leaders, he hasn’t made many friends among the party elite (which, come to think of it, might be a good thing, given the incompetence that the Republican leadership has displayed). In contrast, the entire Democrat party loves Obama.
Even with McCain’s shortcomings as a candidate, he must have something—after all, he almost won the Republican nomination in 2000, and did win in 2008. His appeal seems to lie in his sheer unpredictability and perceived independence of thought. His main selling point seems to lie in a Don Rickleseque ability to attack those in authority or who disagree with him (Bush, Rumsfeld, and those Republicans who don’t support campaign finance reform or amnesty). John McCain’s political persona is that of a principled man speaking truth to power.
That’s hard to do if one is leading in the polls—insults would just make one look petty and self-absorbed, and speaking truth to power isn’t possible if you are actually in power. But if one is behind in the polls, then it is possible to take on the role of the scrappy underdog fighting against the odds. This is what McCain must do.
Surprisingly, McCain hasn’t really exploited this potential strength. Instead, he has…he hasn’t done anything much, really. He’s given some speeches, none of which really went over that well, and challenged Obama on a few issues, and hasn’t really done anything else. Perhaps McCain will decide that the “maverick” strategy won’t work for him, and decide to do something else. But he has to come up with some strategy.
McCain has a perfect opportunity to utilize his maverickness, and doing so would probably help him, but it is important to note that this is an “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” sort of deal. The McCain campaign would much prefer to be in Obama’s position (even though polls done this early in the process are almost meaningless). If McCain plays the underdog, he will be making the best of a bad situation—a situation that will probably put Barack Obama in the White House with both a Democrat Senate and House.