Barack Obama's campaign strategy to equate John McCain with a third Bush term has been relentless, disciplined and so far, effective. McCain as much as acknowledged this in his curiously literal and desperate pronouncement of the obvious -- that he is "not George Bush." But there is a powerful weapon at Barack Obama's disposal that his campaign has failed to deploy -- one that would infuse his strategy with even greater potency. This weapon was available to John Kerry, and to a lesser extent Al Gore, and their failure to use it just might have cost them the Presidency. The not-so-secret weapon is Dick Cheney.
The exclusive means of delivery would be television advertising -- not spoken by Obama directly. The approach would make legitimate comparisons between Cheney and McCain and fuse them with perceptual realities that are already embedded in the public mind, but which are latent and must be unearthed. The strategy is to join compelling imagery with profound substance.
The Obama campaign has two powerful targets in Bush and Cheney, but it concentrates its firepower largely on one. To ignore Cheney is to ignore his enormous significance. Perceptually, and arguably in reality, Cheney has been the President and Chief Operating Officer while Bush has been the nation's Chairman and CEO.
Most obviously, McCain looks more like Cheney, by leaps and bounds, than he does Bush and so from the standpoint of television advertising McCain and Cheney are... well... more morphable. And despite the robust and enviable level of energy McCain displays, the number one word that every poll reveals as the top-of-mind identification with him is "old." I'd place a big bet that the same is true, or nearly true, of Cheney who, though nearly five years younger than McCain comes across like he was born old -- very old. And yet while the second word attached to McCain is "patriotic," I'd similarly wager that high on Cheney's list of identifiers would be "scary," "spooky," "creepy," or something roughly equivalent.
The Obama campaign is keenly aware of the importance of the sharpening contrast between Obama's olympic capacity for sustained cool and what they seek to hammer home in ways subtle and not so subtle, which is that McCain is erratic, impulsive, frustrated and angry -- or worse. These descriptors are close cousins of "scary." Cheney is already perceived as the uncle you hope can't make it to Thanksgiving dinner so the kids don't have nightmares. Increasingly, John McCain, with his personality amplified by the monster machine of television fixated on the contrast with Obama, is beginning to teeter on the edge.
Cruel? Perhaps. Fair? Well, it depends. But if you are being branded as a socialist fellow traveler with terrorists with a suspicious Muslim name and history, I'd say you'll get off with a "non-moving violation" at the entrance to the Pearly Gates. Most importantly, unlike the "guilt by association" arrows hurled at Obama, McCain's policy associations with Cheney, the man he calls "one of the most capable, experienced, intelligent and steady vice presidents this country has ever had," are very real indeed. In fact, the McCain-Cheney alliance will be recorded in history as concocting perhaps the most catastrophic foreign policy decision in the history of the Republic. Indeed, McCain decided not to seriously consider Cheney for the Vice Presidency only because they have "similar strengths." Oh, and before I forget, McCain's response to a role for Cheney in his administration is "Hell, yeah!"
So there is meat on these perceptual bones. Both gentlemen have "experience" in common. But only one can lay claim on the national security front, dubious as it may be, to having delivered a positive outcome as a result of his purported experience and that is John McCain, by virtue of his advocacy of "the Surge" in Iraq.
Conversely, the fruits of Dick Cheney's experience are judged by the public, and even a majority of Republicans, as nothing less than radioactive. The seasoned "old hand," with an 18% approval rating, blows away every vice-president in the history of polling.
According to the Washington Post, Cheney is:
"Less popular than singer Michael Jackson, accused bedmate of little boys and world-class screwball. One in four Americans - 25 % - told Gallup polltakers last June that they were still Jackson fans after the onetime King of Pop was acquitted of child molesting."
"Much less popular than former Vice President Spiro Agnew in his final days in office. 45% approved of the job that Agnew was doing as President Richard Nixon's veep in a Gallup Poll conducted in August 1973, little more than a month before Agnew resigned and pleaded no contest to a criminal tax evasion charge arising from a bribery investigation."
And, last but not least,
"Less popular than former football star O.J. Simpson was after his arrest and trial for murdering his estranged wife and her companion. Three in 10 Americans - 29% - had a favorable view of Simpson in an October, 1995 Gallup poll."
McCain and Cheney arrogate to themselves a condescending certainty that reaches disturbing heights when viewed in the context of the "war fever" (as Colin Powell described Cheney's psyche in the build-up to the Iraq war) they both displayed in the aftermath of 911. The statements of both men are eerily similar, displaying a shockingly casual certainty about sending young soldiers into Hell and an inexplicable certitude that a war at the center of the world's nastiest hornet's nest would be fast and easy.
Yet not only has McCain largely escaped the rap that is now Cheney's battered legacy, but national security remains his greatest asset. The only thing keeping McCain afloat right now with swing voters, given his lagging numbers on every salient domestic and economic concern, is the perception that he is far better equipped and far less risky to assume the role of Commander-in-Chief than the alternative. And if he is elected, it will be because the Obama campaign gave him a pass. Now is the time to remind the voters of the perils of Cheneyism.
From the standpoint of producing television ads, the McCain-Cheney morph is a digital slam dunk. Dark, grainy images of Cheney on Face the Nation, saying we will be out of Iraq in weeks and that we need to go to the "dark side," dissolving to McCain saying pretty much the same thing. There are equally mind-bending Cheney-McCain prophesies regarding the success of the Bush administration's economic programs against a backdrop of inexorable carnage.
Dick Cheney has for a long time been committed to what is effectively a witness protection program for obvious reasons. When was the last time you saw him? The Republicans clearly grasp the liability he poses. The question is whether the Democrats will grasp that they want him out of sight because they want him out of mind. As this pre-election day Halloween approaches, the Obama campaign is running out of time to haul out the spookiest guy in America (now that Lon Cheney of monster movie fame is no longer with us) to scare the bejesus out of parents and their kids across the land.
The specter of a third Bush term is a good and legitimate political image to bring the electorate to its senses. But to really make it come alive, you need to showcase the missing third member of the shady lounge trio act known as the "Axis of Incompetence," the shadowy bass player who keeps the beat ,off in the corner on the dark side, Dick Cheney.