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Joseph Romm Headshot

Contemptuous, Erratic McCain Loses Tactically and Strategicially

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Let's look at why McCain lost the debate by a large margin (13% or 14%) in the two insta polls out, from CBS and CNN.

Obama's twin strategies (his goals) were clear -- cross the Commander in Chief threshold and link McCain to Bush. His matching tactics -- what he did to achieve the goal -- were to appear presidential, counterpunch when needed, and repeat the key points that prove McCain was simply being four more years of Bush.

The McCain campaign has become so erratic that it simply has no clear-cut strategy anymore. A long time ago, McCain's goal was to paint Obama as too inexperienced for the job. McCain abandoned that a few weeks ago to embrace a new strategy/goal of being a reformer who reaches across the aisle to bring about change (i.e. stealing Obama's message). A core tactic was the pick of Sarah Palin.

At the debate, McCain utterly abandoned the goal of presenting himself as an agent of change. He reverted to the goal of trying to paint Obama as being too inexperienced. But merely saying your opponent doesn't understand things, is an ineffectual tactic. Obama held his own, maintained his cool, and counterpunched when needed. He showed that he was ready to be commander in chief. Showing always beats telling.

McCain's erratic behavior in the past 10 days meant that one of his goals should have been to show he wasn't an angry hothead. But his tactic of refusing to even look at his opponent, of expressing more pure contempt for his opponent than I believe has ever been shown in a presidential debate, only reinforced the temperament question about McCain.

Worse for McCain, that tactic is completely at odds with his recent strategy, the one the public still thinks he is pushing -- indeed the one he was pushing earlier this week when he erratically decided to suspend his campaign -- namely pretending to be someone who is a reach-across-the-aisle bipartisan guy. How can you be bipartisan when you can't even look at your opponent in the face once in 97 minutes?

So it is no surprise that McCain lost with independents in the debate (by 22% in this poll). Independents don't like partisan politics -- that's why they aren't a member of either party. Showing contempt may make be a tactic your base likes, but no one else.

And yes, as someone who is a student of strategy, who was the final editor for the Department of Energy strategic plan in the mid-1990s, it is really, really worrisome that a man seeking the highest office in the land not only doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy, he actually had the nerve to lecture Obama that Obama was the one who doesn't understand the difference.

This isn't hard. Strategy is the overarching goal, while tactics are the means (the operational plans) you employ to achieve that goal. The surge is almost the very definition of a tactic, since it was a short-term boost in troop numbers. Yes, General Petraeus also permanently changed how we pursued our counterinsurgency effort. That was also a change in tactics, since the strategy or goal -- counterinsurgency -- remained the same. The key initial strategic decision was whether or not the threat posed by Saddam Hussein justified going to war in the first place.

If you have the wrong strategy, it really doesn't matter what your tactics are. Failing to understand that, indeed, failing to have the right strategy, should be disqualifying for any would-be Commander in Chief.

The bottom line is that Obama did what he had to do in the debate -- indeed, he did what he was trying to do in the debate, whereas McCain did not and perhaps could not, given his erratic strategy and the fundamental mismatch between his strategy and tactics.