CAMPAIGN OUTSIDER McCain's next trick can win
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - Senator John McCain appeared to have accepted the writing on the
wall by last Friday when he defended Democratic Senator Barack Obama against
attacks from red-meat Republicans at a town meeting. The Republican candidate
seemed anxious to stay on the good side of the apparent next US president.
But the fat lady hasn't sung yet in this lengthy 2008 campaign opera. There's
still time for McCain to turn things around, and at least some reasons to think
That's not to ignore the magnitude of the challenge. Despite the issues running
solidly against him, McCain had been keeping the
election close for months. Perhaps it was because he's white and Obama isn't,
perhaps because of McCain's previous stellar reputation.
But McCain's campaign has been ruining that reputation while it attacks its
opponents and ignores the issues, so now his poll numbers are falling,
especially in key states, and he's running out of time. Last week, McCain had
the opportunity for a game changer with the town hall format debate that
supposedly favored him, but the Arizona senator failed to move the needle
during those 90 minutes.
Angry and afraid
Moreover, following the vice president debate, McCain's running mate Sarah
Palin kicked off a new wave of personal attacks on Obama featuring his
association with former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers and thinly
veiled race-baiting. These broadsides are exciting the Republican base but
losing independents. As anger mounted at rallies, McCain promised to join the
mudslinging in earnest.
But when he got on the same stage as Obama, although McCain was all but openly
contemptuous of Obama, he did not directly confront him with any of the charges
heard at Republican rallies. So McCain has managed to look both angry and
cowardly. That's provoked greater animus from Republicans directed mainly at
Obama, the sort that prompted McCain to push back and defend his opponent. Yet
despite all the bile the debate stimulated and the missed opportunity for
McCain, it also included the seeds of his comeback.
During the debate, McCain almost casually unveiled a program for the federal
government to purchase and rework home mortgages in arrears to prevent
foreclosure. Later in the week, McCain revealed an even simpler, sensible
proposal: waive the withdrawal requirement for individual retirement accounts
(IRAs). Current rules require IRA holders to begin cashing out at age
seventy-and-a-half, which would force seniors to take big losses on those
mandated sales as well as putting more shares on the market at the least
opportune time. When McCain says these sensible things, though, they get lost
in the noise of his campaign.
Keep in mind that Obama has grabbed the lead not because of his own stellar
strategy or brilliant insights on the financial meltdown, but because of
McCain's blunders. To get back on track, McCain needs to reduce the noise and
regain control of campaign. Step one is firing campaign manager Rick Davis,
Steve Schmidt, his Karl Rove protege campaign strategist, and the rest of the
George W Bush hit squad piloting his train wreck. The replacement should be
someone less divisive but solidly Republican. Maybe Ed Rollins, who ran Mike
Huckabee's campaign earlier this year, could be induced from his seat at CNN to
take the job. The main point is to bring in someone who suggests adult
supervision and is loyal only to McCain.
Silent Cal says ...
Accompanying the campaign purge, McCain needs to find a big platform to admit
he's been untrue to himself by playing the Rove card, and that he regrets it.
The changes he's made indicate a decision to stop it and get the Straight Talk
Express back on track.
It happened before, about a year ago, when his campaign for the nomination
drifted out of control, and he was able to fix it then. After winning the
nomination, he let it happen again as the demands of being the candidate
mounted. These managers hijacked the campaign away from what he wanted it to
be, an effort not only to win, but to create a basis for governing and solving
America's problems at home and around the world.
The political pros advise it is crazy to make change at this late stage of the
campaign, McCain should say, but it's even crazier to fail without being to
true to lifelong principles. He can quote a Republican president who doesn't
often get a lot of ink, Silent Calvin Coolidge: "There is only one form of
political strategy in which I have any confidence, and that is to try to do the
It's probably too much at this point to ask that McCain extend the purge to
vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, but she's clearly part of the wrong
direction McCain's campaign has taken. She's also not proven a very good
soldier, openly disagreeing with McCain on the decision to abandon his
electoral effort in Michigan, perhaps going overboard with some of her attacks,
and certainly becoming a distraction. To keep evangelicals on board, McCain
would need to find someone equally acceptable to them who doesn't have anything
else going on right now, such as ex-governor and preacher Huckabee.
Instead of name calling and phony charges that lead everyone off-track, McCain
should say he'll talk about the real issues and his real solutions. After all,
that's why he wants to be president. With the economy increasingly the key
issue, McCain needs to keep getting specific and pushing Obama to do the same.
At present, McCain's ineptitude and distractions are giving Obama a pass on
presenting a realistic plan to deal with the financial crisis and letting him
pretend that it won't impact his spending proposals.
To press the issue, McCain should name an economic czar who'd head his effort
to get financial markets back on track. The difficulty is finding the right
guy. The stars of the McCain campaign economic galaxy (See
With friends like these ... Asia Times Online, July 15, 2008)
ex-senator from Enron Phil Gramm and deposed Hewlett Packard chief executive
officer Carly Fiorina don't have the right stuff either. Warren Buffett, who
McCain nominated as a potential Treasury secretary is a Democrat. Among former
Federal Reserve chairmen, Paul Volcker is advising Obama and Alan Greenspan's
reputation has suffered since he left office, damage mounting in the current
McCain needs to come up with a figure that will inspire confidence and will be
willing to be identified with what still resembles a rapidly sinking ship. It
can't be an obscurity or fringe ideologue like rabid tax cutter Grover Norquist
or former flat tax candidate Steve Forbes. Retired Vanguard Group founder John
Bogle would be the right type. A more conventional choice would be former
Ronald Reagan Treasury secretary James Baker.
To underscore that he is doing things differently for the stretch run, McCain
and his running mate should go door-to-door in Ohio for a day, then
door-to-door in Florida, and then in every other toss-up state between now and
election day. It's the kind of simple, down to earth, honest gesture that
evokes the John McCain many Americans wish had shown up for this election
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America�s story
to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
high finance and cheap lingerie.