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McCain's Narrative Problem

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Robert Draper's New York Times piece on the McCain campaign skillfully maps out the strange remove from which McCain and his aides have been operating, a place that few people outside the world of politics could locate in their own experience. It is an imaginary land built entirely of literary abstractions, including "narrative," "character," and "true character moment." (Attn. literary theorists: You could make an argument that it's the first post-structuralist campaign.)

Here is one example:

The campaign was in the throes of an identity crisis by June 24, when a number of senior strategists gathered at 9:30 a.m. in a conference room of McCain's campaign headquarters in Arlington. As one participant said later, the meeting was convened "because we still couldn't answer the question, 'Why elect John McCain?' " Considering that the election was less than five months away, this was not a good sign.

"We had a narrative problem," Matt McDonald recalls. "Obama had a story line: 'Bush is the problem. I'm not going to be Bush, and McCain will be.' Our story line, I argued, had to be that it's not about Bush -- it's Congress, it's Washington. And Obama would be more about partisanship, while John McCain would buck the party line and bring people together."

The others could see McDonald's line of reasoning -- and above all, the need to separate McCain from Bush. But the message seemed antiseptic, impersonal. That was when the keeper of McCain's biography, Mark Salter, took the floor. There's a reason McCain bucks his party, McDonald remembers Salter arguing. It's because he puts his country ahead of party. Then the speechwriter, who is not known for his dispassion, began to yell: "We're talking about someone who was willing to die before losing his honor! He would die!"

OK, then. I can appreciate as well as anyone the difficulty of crafting a consistent national message for a presidential campaign, especially a losing one taking place in a time of crisis. But like most people, I tend to think that the message flows from some basic questions any contender might ask him/herself before running: what do I want to do as president? What problems does the country face at this pass in our history? What programs and policies might I put in place to confront those problems? One perk of running for president is you get to think really, really big.

But there's very little evidence in this piece, based on months of reporting and interviews with McCain staffers, that McCain and his advisers have done this. His campaign seems based on one idea alone: because of who he is - not what he has done as a senator, not what he wants to do as president, but who he is - John McCain should be president. It's not like this is nothing. Who John McCain is is clearly an interesting story, and they play around with it just about every conceivable way in successive attempts to sell his candidacy. But nowhere in the piece do you get the sense that McCain is grappling with the issues of the day. Instead, his staff is shown furiously packaging and staging the candidate's reactions to passing news events such as the Russia-Georgia skirmish, trying to fit them to one of their narratives.

This reaches its low point with the Sept. decision to suspend the campaign, which is supposed to be a "true character moment." But as Hilzoy notes, the campaign's response is all about staging and perception and "character," not, well, character - the qualities a real leader employs to respond to a political crisis:

If a Presidential candidate truly wants to do the right thing in a situation like this, it seems to me that the best thing to do is not to talk about it, and not to do anything dramatic, but to work as hard as you can behind the scenes. Very few difficult policy decisions are improved by having Presidential politics injected into them, and this seemed unlikely to be one of the exceptions. McCain is not on any of the relevant committees, has no obvious expertise in finance, and, by all accounts, does not have the kind of standing in Congress that would let him rally members behind him. That means that it's not at all clear how his returning to DC would help at all, especially since he could just as easily have tried to round up support for whatever course of action he thought best by phone.

If McCain had actually asked himself what the right thing to do was, it's hard to see how he could have come up with the answer: suspending my campaign and heading to Washington. If he did think that that was the most helpful thing he could do under the circumstances, I'd have to seriously question both his judgment and his insight into his own capacities.

It may be that there was nothing McCain could have done to turn the tide of the election this year. But he did have an opportunity - the one taken away from him in 2000 - to put his own stamp on the Republican Party. Sure, it might have torn the party apart - but the party is coming apart now anyway. And even that would have shown that McCain and his aides were actively thinking about the party and the country, rather than merely endlessly crafting perceptions.