Monday, April 28, 2008

Reflections on McCain and Conventional Wisdom

I really want to avoid the subject of the election for as long as possible, but with all the saturation coverage going on, it is really hard. With coverage focusing mostly on Clinton v. Obama, I will address another aspect -- the extent to which the primary in general and McCain in particular are not sticking to conventional wisdom and the accepted script.

Conventional wisdom about elections used to be that a candidate should appeal to the party "base" to win the nomination and then head center and appeal to swing voters in order to win the general election. It was assumed that once a candidate had secured the party nomination, more hardline ideological elements in the party could be ignored because they had no other option.

Somewhere along the line, a new conventional wisdom replaced to old. This one held that the party's "base" did have another option if their candidate did not meet their standards of ideological purity -- they could stay home and not vote at all. New conventional wisdom held that there were too few swing voters to really matter, and the real secret to winning was to "rally the base." Later on (and no doubt with some prodding by the Karl Roves of the world) this conventional wisdom was replaced with a modified version. Republicans had a larger base than Democrats. The secret to victory for Republicans was to hew right to rally the base, while the best strategy for Democrats was to hew center to attract moderates. In recent elections, Democrats have chosen their candidates based on who was most "electable," while Republicans pandered to the Christian Coalition.

This conventional wisdom turns out to have its limits. The Christian Coalition, after all, is a distinct minority of the population. When Republicans consistently treat them as the only constituency that matters, sooner or later everyone else is going to take offense. Urging Republicans to steer right and Democrats to steer center has the obvious effect of steering ever further and further to the right. This process is also self-limits; keep ever farther right and sooner or later your wheels will end up in a ditch. That is where the Republican Party finds itself now.

The reversal of the latest conventional wisdom in this election is striking. This time, the Republicans chose their candidate based on who was most "electable." And the Democratic base is mobilized as never before and refusing to play it safe.*

But even more striking is how McCain is defying the old conventional wisdom of running to the wings in the primaries and the center in the general election. So far his approach looks like the exact opposite. During the primary he ran as the moderate candidate whose main selling point was his "electability." Since securing the nomination, McCain has moved in the opposite direction, moving to the right and shoring up support with the party base. Trying to appear to swing voters and shore up the base at once puts McCain in awkward position. He has to simultaneously distance himself from George Bush and be as much like him as possible. Presumably when the Democratic nomination if finally settled and the general election starts in earnest, McCain will veer center again to appeal to the swing vote. But in the meantime, watch him stand conventional wisdom on its head.

*Part of this may be the realization that there is no "safe," that no matter who the Democratic candidate is, the slime will be just as thick and fast. Sadly, in this election the slime will be flowing in both directions and McCain will be treated just as vilely as the Democrat. I am sorry to see it happen because I do consider McCain to be an honorable man, but elections these days leave no choice but to fight fire with fire and woe to the innocent.

PS: Hillary has also been defying conventional wisdom and channelling her inner Republican in the primaries. Presumably if she could somehow win the nomination, she would make some attempt to distinguish herself from McCain.

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