Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Geoffrey Dunn Headshot

Rick Davis and McCain's Failed Campaign Strategy

Posted: Updated:

October has not been a good month for Rick Davis, the notorious uber-lobbyist who's also managing John McCain's failed campaign for the American presidency. His candidate is sinking in the polls and the election is slipping through his fingers. What's more, the GOP is going to be outspent by four-to-one in the final weeks of the campaign and several prominent Republicans--Colin Powell, former GOP governors Bill Weld and Arne Carlson, President Bush's former spokesman Scott McClellan, and conservative foreign policy expert Ken Adelman--have just jumped ship. And, finally, his second spot on the ticket is going rogue on him, looking very much like a hooked salmon aboard a fishing trawler in Bristol Bay. It is not a pretty picture.

November promises to be even worse. Davis will be blamed for orchestrating one of the biggest losses in recent Republican history, as polls are beginning to suggest not only a Democratic Party landslide, but a complete transformation of American electoral politics. Come January 2009, it will not be a good time to be a right-wing Republican lobbyist in Washington, D.C.--which has pretty much been Davis's job description for the past decade. The political trough at which Davis and his partners at Davis, Manafort & Freedman have fed gluttonously will have gone dry.

Karma is a bitch. If there's been one single person responsible for the Republican downfall this election, it's been Rick Davis. Forget George Bush and the rest of the washed-up Neanderthals in his administration. Davis had plenty of time and opportunity to stem the tide--and he has made bad decisions at every turn. Davis will be remembered as the guy who lost to an untested African American with the middle name of Hussein and who is arguably one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate. It's quite an accomplishment.

Excuses are already being made for McCain's performance and fingers are being pointed. In a phone conversation today, Davis blamed the economy and "an immensely unpopular president" as two of the hurdles facing his campaign. McCain also has pointed the finger at Bush, while campaign staffers have called Davis rigid and out-of-touch and unable to adapt. He's also been blamed for not crafting an overall narrative to McCain's campaign and for allowing both McCain and Palin to pander to daily gossip rather than to the economic and foreign policy issues facing the country.

Davis has claimed that "we're holding our own" and still predicting victory. He says that "money is not going to decide this race."

He's right. There are plenty of other factors that will decide the outcome on November 4--all variables which could have been approached differently by Davis, the University of Alabama dropout and Navy brat who was schooled in the Republican South and then followed the yellow-brick road to Washington.

Here's a half-dozen:

1. Take the economy. Please. The Obama-Biden ticket is facing the same economic crisis as McCain. And the electorate is far less likely to support big-spending Democrats during times of economic downturn. The difference is that voters, by an overwhelmingly large margin, feel that Obama has a far greater command of economic issues than does McCain. So the difference isn't in the crisis itself, but how the two campaigns have engaged it.

McCain's ridiculous claim that the economy was essentially sound didn't play well in the likes of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and other states hit hard by the economic downturn. (Nor did his eleven houses.) It cost him his lead in states like Ohio and Florida. By reducing his solution to cutting taxes as an appeasement to "Joe the Plumber," he has further alienated independent and undecided voters in those critical swing states.

Joe the Plumber is a creation of Rick Davis. Shallow is as shallow does.

If you watch Davis on television, you see a man angry and out of touch with the American people--pretty much like John McCain. The guy needs to take a daily Valium. And for him to put his face on the Sunday morning talk shows reflects an arrogance of grand proportions: the guy couldn't sell hand warmers in a blizzard. His negative ratings are probably right there with George Bush--only Bush is more likable.

2. Then there is Sarah Palin. Oh, boy. This one, of course, got foisted on McCain by Davis and Steve Schmidt, and while there has been a surge from the conservative Republican base since Palin's selection, support from moderate Republicans for the ticket has gone soft--and from independents it's gone south. And more south. When Elisabeth Hasselbeck is calling the shots for you, you know you're in trouble.

Mainstream America simply does not view Palin as qualified for the position--let alone the presidency should something happen to the 72-year-old McCain. What was it that Colin Powell said?: "Now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made."

Of course, there's been a string of Republicans in recent weeks who have taken their shots at Palin. "The Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics," wrote Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal. "It's no good, not for conservatism and not for the country. And yes, it is a mark against John McCain."

Davis saw stars when he and Schmidt happened upon Palin as a possible running mate. The two shared videos of her appearing on Charlie Rose during the days leading up to the decision. They convinced themselves that she was the counterbalance to McCain. And they brought few people into their small circle of decision. Then they convinced McCain.

How wrong they were. Palin is at best a gimmick; at worst, she's a fraud. Is there anyone out there now who seriously believes that the Republicans would be behind in states like Florida or Iowa or even New Hampshire with the VP selection that McCain really wanted--Joe Lieberman--on the ticket? Or would they be behind in the critical state of Pennsylvania had former GOP governor Tom Ridge been on the ticket?

Even to watch Palin fully scripted on Saturday Night Live was painful. Why would anyone from the McCain campaign allow her to further embarrass herself on national television? Davis is simply clueless when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the national polity. To watch him in these final days of the campaign is to see someone truly out of touch with mainstream America. He's nearly as clueless as Palin. Only angrier.

3. Moreover, Davis and Co. clearly had not vetted Sarah Palin properly prior to the decision. My sources in Alaska say that interviews with key Republican figures in the Last Frontier were never conducted, including one with Lyda Green, a veteran Republican state senator in Alaska, and a former ally of Palin's turned hostile. Not only was there far more to the Troopergate investigation than Palin initially let on, her intellectual deficiencies are manifestly apparent to anyone who engages her in serious political discussion.

4. John McCain told Barack Obama in the third and final debate that he wasn't George Bush. He should have told Rick Davis that long ago. The entire McCain campaign strategy has been to hold those states won by Bush in 2004 and to do it in the same manner that Bush did--once again, by appealing to the conservative, right-wing base of the party. Davis still thinks this is a winning strategy.

The trouble is: John McCain is not George Bush--even though Davis has tried to reconfigure him as such. I honestly believe that the deep anger boiling at the surface of McCain's psyche is that he's having to sound like a conservative Republican to win the Presidency. Davis has never understood the McCain brand.

Trying to mimic the Karl Rove electoral strategy has failed McCain and failed him badly. The real John McCain is indeed a maverick, someone who reached across the isle during his lengthy career in the Senate. He's actually a pretty likable guy. Had that been the John McCain who debated Barack Obama in each of the three presidential debates, rather than the angry conservative, does anyone think that McCain would have lost to Obama by two-to-one margins with independents watching the debates?

McCain is an anti-ideologue, and while he had to appeal to the base to win the Republican primary, his one possible course to victory in the general election would have been to move to the middle. Davis had him steer off the other way.

5. The right-wing harping on Obama has backfired. If it didn't work for Hillary Clinton to bring up the likes of Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright, why in the hell did Davis think it would work a second time around when the American voters had already rejected it in the first place? This isn't Alabama, Dorothy.

Poll after poll shows that the hit pieces on Obama aren't working, but, today, reports indicate that Davis and Palin want to go back to harping on Reverend Wright and Obama's "socialism."

6. Davis has tried to make it a campaign about Obama's character. The American people want to hear about issues.

Perhaps Davis didn't watch the Democratic primary closely enough. But both Democrats and Republicans sitting in their living rooms saw Obama hold his cool against attacks from both Hillary and Bill Clinton for six solid months. He didn't flinch. The American people already knew that Obama had the poise and temperament to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

Conversely, Davis has crafted a campaign persona that has played into the public's worst perceptions of McCain's personality and temperament. He's projecting his own anger and frustrations onto his candidate. And it's downright ugly.

What could Davis have done to win the election?

Rather than challenging Obama's character, Davis should have been highlighting McCain's own foreign policy experience, particularly in the Middle East, rather than harp on a couple of missteps by Obama early in the campaign. His admonishing of Obama about dealing with the "enemy" in debates and on the stump have come off as condescending and, even, racist.

He should have crafted a positive, uplifting campaign message, with an optimistic vision for America. That is at the heart of Obama's campaign, and it's now why he's winning in the polls. Obama does not walk on water and he does have limits to his experience and he's made a handful of mistakes along the campaign trail. Davis hasn't capitalized on a single one of those deficiencies. Instead, he and Schmidt keep falling back to an attack on Obama.

By fashioning a campaign based on fear and negativity, hatred and doubt, John McCain now finds himself with an awfully steep hill to climb between now and Election Day. He had every opportunity to win this campaign against a relative newcomer with a challenging name. But just as did Hillary Clinton, he has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory--because Rick Davis and others who form the heart of the McCain-Palin inner-circle have drastically misread the American people and, as a result, have crafted an overarching campaign strategy based on failure.

Register To Vote