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The Statesman

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The Statesman

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    Why John McCain Can’t Make Up His Mind

    A lot of people either getting into politics for the first time, or even those who love politics and have been following it since before Obama was even a senator, are confused about some of the things that the McCain campaign has been doing. I’m not talking about his tax plans or health care initiative or what he’s planning to do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. These are platforms – I’m talking about strategies.

    First of all, Republicans are smart. They know how to win elections and when it comes down to it, that’s what politics is about. The problem now is that they’re experiencing some significant ideological rifting, and while this rift has been in existence for some time now, it only shows up when one side or the other does something particularly unpopular. Right now, the “neoconservative” side of the party is in charge and the unpopular thing they did is sitting in the White House. The other side of the party wants a chance to fix things.

    But there’s some history behind this. The rift that we currently see more or less dates back to the Reagan days when a group of ex-Democrats, disillusioned with the new shape of their own party, turned to Ronald Reagan as a way to continue what they saw as being the more pro-American policies, like spreading democracy to the world and standing in firm opposition to Soviet Communism. Reagan himself had been a Democrat for much of his life (in fact, I don’t think he officially re-registered as a Republican until 1962-he was in his 50s by then.) But he always said things like “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the party left me,” and in a way, he was right.

    The important thing to note, however, is that Reagan was charismatic, he was patriotic, he was folksy, he acted like a regular guy and – most importantly – he was immensely popular (I mean come on, who wins 49 out of 50 states in their reelection?)

    Being that Republicans do, in fact, have brains (despite what some people on campus will tell you) many in the party saw the Reagan package as an equation for success, not only because it was a winning strategy, but because it gives considerable flexibility to those in charge. This is because voters, when looking at Reagan, saw a charismatic, patriotic, folksy guy and they liked it. And as any expert on leadership and rhetoric will tell you, they probably would have liked it even if his actual positions on issues were different. That’s the whole point of charisma.

    Essentially what this meant for the Reagan administration is that, since voters are busy with their own lives and don’t have the time to critically analyze the minutiae of every position of every candidate that comes before them, the things that they look for, the things they want to see in a candidate (whether or not they realize it) are things like charisma, patriotism, and the degree to which they feel they can relate to the candidate.

    Since these are the reasons that people, to some extent, ultimately vote for the candidate, these things almost become the candidate’s campaign promises. Thus, if he continues to be charismatic, patriotic and folksy, people feel that the “promises” are kept and it almost doesn’t matter what else he does so long as he doesn’t screw up enormously.

    Now, this is a pretty good strategy and no, the Republicans did not invent it in 1976. They did, however, realize how the effect could be in the U.S. and have continued to use it. The only problem is that, if you’re going to claim that your candidate is charismatic, patriotic, and folksy, you have to show how you’re opponent is the opposite of those things.

    This is exactly what the first George Bush did when he convinced America that Mike Dukakis was an out of touch, east coast liberal who ran lame television advertisements. Bush thus focused the discussion on things like Dukakis’ opposition to making students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and accusations that his wife was a flag-burner. People understand these things.

    But remember that there were — and still are — many old school Republicans around. Bob Dole is probably one of them and he ran in 1996. John McCain is probably another. Bob Dole didn’t run his campaign the way Reagan and H.W. Bush did and he didn’t get elected. George W. Bush did run his campaign like Reagan and Bush (folksy, patriotic) and he did get elected.

    So John McCain, ready to run his campaign the way he would run his campaign, by focusing on the issues, is approached by the rest of the party around mid-August, informed that he isn’t charismatic and folksy enough, and handed the folksiest person that the Republicans could possibly find as a running mate. Yes, that would be Sarah Palin.

    Now John McCain isn’t used to playing this game. So when his campaign and his vice president start accusing Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” it may be confusing to some people. The Republicans are trying to portray Obama as an out of touch, unpatriotic, elitist liberal the way they so successfully did with Mike Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry. And McCain is going along with it because he knows it has proven to be a winning strategy.

    But when a McCain supporter says that Obama is a “terrorist” or that she’s afraid to raise her children in a country where Obama is the president, and McCain corrects her saying Obama is a “decent family man” towards whom they need to be “respectful” and focus on the issues, people become confused at the mixed signals because they don’t realize that McCain isn’t completely in control of his own campaign. And now you know why.

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