This piece is co-authored by Mary Grabar and Brian Birdnow.
Is John McCain’s campaign sputtering along the same track that Gerald Ford’s and Bob Dole’s did? History--after November 4, 2008--will tell.
But before the train rolls off, history can provide some helpful advice to the McCain campaign to keep it on track. McCain might be able to learn lessons from the doomed, lackluster campaigns of Ford and Dole. Like Ford, the presumptive Republican standard bearer strikes friend and foe alike as an earnest and patriotic American. But McCain’s campaign suffers from a lack of focus, an unclear message, and an inability or unwillingness to convey strong conviction.
Alas, these are the same traits that plagued two of our most forgettable Presidential candidates. President Ford, running in 1976 against the Democratic candidate, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, displayed many of the weaknesses now afflicting the McCain campaign. Ford, like McCain, impressed most observers as honest, hardworking, and patriotic. The former Michigan University football star and Naval officer fairly radiated integrity. His solid, midwestern values seemed ill suited, however, to the media age as he failed to use the television camera to any advantage. Ford’s turgid campaigning and speaking style inspired no one, not even his own staff. Moreover, he offered no consistent set of values. At various times Ford emphasized fiscal conservatism, but he showed little imagination in legislative matters and tended to avoid social issues and the political problems attendant to them. Indeed, President Ford seemed unaware of the seismic shifts in the intellectual world of the 1970s and the effect that these shifts would work on national politics. The American public had tired of politics-as-usual and sought to roll back the excesses of the welfare state. Ford did not grasp the central principle that political differences actually developed from ideological divisions, most of which could not be reconciled. One of these, as our interminable debates since 1973 have illustrated, is abortion. Abortion is one of those issues that go back to premises and moral convictions. It was the type of issue that President Ford avoided and hoped would resolve itself.
Ford was reputed to have been the nicest guy in Washington, like the guy next door who kept his lawn neat and paid his taxes, someone who might make a good manager. But he was hardly anyone to inspire voters.