Alex Massie

Michael Gerson’s Wishful Thinking

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Michael Gerson today:

Obama's current success is not enjoyable for conservatives. But this does not make McCain an incompetent. Maybe he is a great man running at the most difficult of times.

Gerson's thesis is that McCain was doing well until the financial crisis intervened. Perhaps. Certainly there is polling evidence that can be cited to support such a view. And yes, there was a spell when Democrats fretted that Obama was, relative to the generic Democrat vs Republican race, under-performing. According to Gerson:

Previous to this economic free fall -- and after his transformative vice-presidential choice -- McCain was about tied in a race he should have been losing by a large margin. The public clearly had questions about Obama's leadership qualities. But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.

Up to a point. Once a race is over, of course, everything falls neatly into place. It was always going to end like this, wasn't it? Naturally, this is not actually the case. True, it's because the underlying circumstances were so favourable to the Democrats that the party could take  risk by nominating a youthful, black, liberal Senator rather than the safer (in terms of known unknowns), if still problematic, option of choosing Hillary Clinton. Noentheless, Gerson is mistaken. In the first place, he ignores the impact of the Palin pick: yes, the Barracuda helped in the short-term and yes gave the base reasons to believe, but she also undermined the central thrust of McCain's candidacy in terms of how the GOP was trying to frame the debate: experience, wisdom, judgement and reform vs callow inexperience.

Equally, "constructing" a "narrative" of Obama as a "lightweight celebrity" was a strategy that depended upon Obama showing himself to be nothing more than a lightweight celebrity candidate. But what if he showed more than that? What would the McCain campaign do then? In other words, McCain's strategy depended upon Obama failing, not McCain succeeding. As such it was vulnerable. Indeed, it was predicated upon an analysis that was not the GOP's to control.

Then again, this was rather the strategy that had worked for McCain in the primaries. McCain did not so much provide a reason for voting for him - the apparent success of the "surge" notwithstanding - as outlast his opponents. Rather as Booker Prize judges frequentlyend up choosing everyone's second or third choice novel, so the GOP turned to McCain once the other candidates - Giuliani, Thompson, Romney - had, one way or another, disqualified themselves.

Once Obama demonstrated at the convention and then in the first two debates that he had the look of a President about him, the McCain campaign's strategy had little left to offer. It was trying to sell the public a product voters didn' believe in, spinning the punters a line that was contradicted by their own perceptions. Whereas John Kerry did often come across as a flip-flopping doofus, Obama doesn't come across as a recklessly inexperienced Hollywood candidate. At the risk of labouring the point, if Obama - still relatively unknown to many voters just a couple of months ago - showed the posise and gravitas voters expect, then the McCain "narrative" was left in tatters. Equally, the Palin pick, as I say, undermined McCain's own claims to leadership experience and judgement. 

[Via Daniel Larison, who has more to say on the matter.]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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