28 September 2008

On McCain, Tactics, and Strategy

Tactic: a device for accomplishing an end.
Strategy: a careful plan or method : a clever stratagem b: the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal.

It's striking that, during the first presidential debate, Senator McCain chose to assert that Barack Obama doesn’t know “the difference between a tactic and a strategy” (Klein). Curiously, on the morning of 26 September, before the showdown at Ole Miss, several pundits wondered about a campaign's misunderstanding of "tactics and strategy" as well--but they wondered if it might be Mr. McCain who confuses the two. Hours before McCain's accusation, David Brooks, Howard Wolfson, and Jake Tapper all wrote that the McCain campaign, having no “argument” for why McCain should be president, have settled for a series of short-term tactical blasts rather than a “careful plan or method.”

See David Brooks, a long term McCain supporter,
what disappoints me about the McCain campaign is it has no central argument. I had hoped that he would create a grand narrative explaining how the United States is fundamentally unprepared for the 21st century and how McCain’s worldview is different.

McCain has not made that sort of all-encompassing argument, so his proposals don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a groundbreaking argument about why he is different, he’s had to rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat. He has no frame to organize his response when financial and other crises pop up.
The result, according to Brooks, is a fractured McCain: “[o]ne day he’s a small-government Western conservative; the next he’s a Bull Moose progressive. The two don’t add up — as we’ve seen in his uneven reaction to the financial crisis.” Brooks attempts to explain this fragmentation as the result of McCain’s 26 years in the Senate: he’s been forced to “take issues on at a time.” Yet this argument suggests that, even as senator, McCain had no overall national narrative that those issues contributed to. Has McCain really just been a “what’s good for the moment” man? I hope not, but this appears to be a McCain mainstay.

After McCain decided that he would attend the debate, Howard Wolfson wrote,
This is a campaign flying by the seat of its pants, chasing news cycles without a real plan once it has caught them.

The Obama campaign gets up every day and asks themselves how they can make the case for change vs more of the same [their argument], just as they did yesterday, and they will do tomorrow.

The McCain campaign wakes up and figures out how to try to win the day.
Rather than build an overall plan for winning the election, much less present an overall plan for the country, the McCain camp fights to dominate the evening news and watercooler discussions. Naturally, this results in the widespread exposure of any conflicts in McCain's actions or statements--for example, his claim that "the country is fundamentally strong" (as the Dow plummeted), his back-and-forth on regulations, and the link between top McCain aids and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which existed until the government took over those institutions.

Apparently, the GOP is taking note of the McCain camp's contradictions. Following Wolfson's piece, Jake Tapper at ABC reported that,
a very high-ranking former Republican official said something very similar [to Wolfson’s argument] to me the other day: that the McCain campaign is obsessed with tactics -- not strategy. The campaign is focused on winning the news cycle -- not having a larger consistent message.
As a result, people increasingly view McCain as impulsive and short sighted--shaky. That he leaps from one point of view to its opposite in short time distracts from any vision of the country he might have. As Wolfson writes, it’s all about the news cycle; just the other week, McCain’s aids crowed about their anything-goes effort to control that cycle. And when this backfires on them, when analysts talk about McCain’s inconsistencies, the campaign projects its failures onto others: either the media is “in the tank” for the Democrat or McCain and his people accuse Obama and his people of suffering from their own confusions.

In contrast to McCain's tactical focus, Obama remains consistent, and each move by his campaign seems to contribute to his overall argument and overall plan. It's common sense that the public desires this following the recent economic earthquakes, not to mention the previous eight years. If the manner in which a candidate runs his campaign signals how that candidate might run the country, we’d best ask Senator McCain about the difference between, and significance of, tactics and strategy.

Added: James Fallows writes on the two campaigns' use of tactics v. strategy. And Conservative David Frum has a nifty little piece titled "McCain Hobbled by A Campaign That's All Tactics, No Message," which concludes "[t]
he American presidential election of 2008 is an election about big issues. It’s not going to be won by small manoeuvre." Ouch.

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