John McCain Can "Win Ugly" if He Sticks With The Program ....

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Jul 31, 2008 8:27 AM
For the first time this general election cycle, John McCain is driving the message.  The reason?  There has finally been, I believe, a tacit admission that John McCain cannot win a beauty contest against Barack Obama -- but that he can "win ugly" -- as they say in football.  Like it, or not, this assessment is valid.  But it could be hard to swallow for McCain, a candidate who likes to be popular with the media, himself.

No doubt, this strategy is the result of the promotion of Rovian adviser Steve Schmidt.  It will be decried as "negative," but as they say, "politics ain't beanbag."  Rove managed to win two elections doing exactly what Schmidt is now attempting, and at the end of the day, it's merely a smart political strategy, which in my opinion is philosophically neutral.  You play the hand you're dealt.

This strategy is similar to what happens when a football team decides they can't win a game against a glamorous quarterback -- unless they make the game "physical."  Here's how it works; If your team has the flashy quarterback, you want the game to be about that.  But if you're playing against that flashy quarterback, your strategy is to rough-him-up, and keep him off-balance -- so he never becomes comfortable in the pocket.

Of course, this will draw criticism -- which McCain should promptly ignore.  You wouldn't criticize the Redskins for employing this strategy to beat the Cowboys, yet political candidates are often held to different standards.  Still, according to the analogy, Obama is that dainty but flashy quarterback.  McCain must put him on the ground in order to win.  Fair enough.

Sadly, some Republican talking heads -- and former McCain advisers -- are criticizing this strategy.  In my estimation, these folks should shut up.  One piece of advice the McCain folks ought to adhere to is to simply not allow these naysayers to influence his team's message and strategy.  It will be curious to see whether or not McCain, himself, will have the ability to stick with this strategy long enough to see it to work.  If he gives into the criticism, in my estimation, he has lost.

Ironically, it is the air war that will allow McCain to defeat Obama.  It is no coincidence that McCain's advertisements -- not the candidate's speeches or rhetoric -- that have been most successful at creating this narrative.  Unlike the unexpurgated candidate, McCain's ads have finally settled on a general theme -- that Obama is out-of-touch.  It is doubtful the candidate will be as disciplined as the ads.

Yesterday's ad portrayed Obama as a "celebrity" like Britney and Paris.  This is a fine opening salvo, but it will only work if it is merely one facet of a larger narrative about Obama's image.  If the McCain folks are smart, they will hit him today with an ad on the Ludacris rap.  Clearly, this offensive rapper casts Obama as out-of-touch with most Americans.  Critics who deride the "celebrity" ad as puerile are majoring in the minors.  They should realize this one ad is merely part of a larger strategy.  You can't make everyone happy with every message of the day, but the larger narrative is what matters.

This is not going to be pretty, but the election is going to be a referendum on Barack Obama, like it or not.  The real question is whether or not McCain, himself, has the stomach to allow his team to run this sort of campaign.  Winning will probably mean that he is viewed by the media as having "changed" and gone "negative."

McCain has often said he would rather "lose an election than lose a war."  My question is whether he would rather lose an election than lose his popularity with the media elites.  To beat Barack Obama, he can't have both.