It's time for John McCain to fire his campaign.
He has nothing to lose. His campaign is totally overmatched by Barack Obama's. The Obama team is well organized and flush with resources, and the candidate and the campaign are in sync. The McCain campaign, once merely problematic, is close to being out-and-out dysfunctional. Its combination of strategic incoherence and operational incompetence has become toxic. If the race continues over the next three weeks to be a conventional one, McCain is doomed.
He may be anyway. Bush is unpopular. The news media are hostile. The financial meltdown has made things tougher. Maybe the situation is hopeless – and if it is, then nothing McCain or his campaign does matters.
I'm not convinced by such claims of inevitability. McCain isn't Bush. The media are not all-powerful. And the economic crisis still presents an opportunity to show leadership.
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The 2008 campaign is now about something very big – both our future prosperity and our national security. Yet the McCain campaign has become smaller.
What McCain needs to do is junk the whole thing and start over.
Ads aren't working anyway
Shut down the rapid responses, end the frantic e-mails, bench the spinning surrogates, stop putting up new TV and Internet ads every minute. Pull all the ads – they're doing no good anyway. Use that money for televised town halls and half-hour addresses in prime time.
And let McCain go back to what he's been good at in the past – running as a cheerful, open and accessible candidate. Palin should follow suit. The two are attractive and competent politicians. They're happy warriors and good campaigners. Set them free.
Provide total media accessibility on their campaign planes and buses. Kick most of the aides off and send them out to swing states to work for state coordinators on getting voters to the polls. Keep a minimal staff to organize the news conferences McCain and Palin should have at every stop and the TV interviews they should do at every location.
Do town hall meetings, the Sunday TV shows, talk radio – and invite Obama and Biden to join them in some of these venues, on the ground that more joint appearances might restore civility and substance to the contest.
The hope for McCain and Palin is that they still have pretty good favorable ratings from the voters. The American people have by no means turned decisively against them.
The bad news, of course, is that right now Obama's approval/disapproval rating is better than McCain's. Indeed, Obama's is a bit higher than it was a month ago. That suggests the failure of the McCain campaign's attacks on Obama.
Attacks aren't working either
So drop them.
Not because they're illegitimate. I think many of them are reasonable. Obama's relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is, I believe, a legitimate issue.
But McCain ruled it out of bounds, and he's sticking to that. And for whatever reason – the public mood, campaign ineptness, McCain's alternation between hesitancy and harshness, which reflects his discomfort in the attack role – the other attacks on Obama just aren't working. There's no reason to think they're suddenly going to.
There are still enough doubts about Obama to allow McCain to win. But McCain needs to make his case, and do so as a serious but cheerful candidate for times that need a serious but upbeat leader.
McCain should stop unveiling gimmicky proposals every couple of days that pretend to deal with the financial crisis. He should tell the truth – we're in uncharted waters, no one is certain what to do, and no one knows what the situation will be on Jan. 20, 2009. But what we do know is that we could use someone as president who's shown in his career the kind of sound judgment and strong leadership we'll need to make it through the crisis.
Tout ‘centrist conservatism'
McCain can make the substantive case for his broadly centrist conservatism. He can explain that our enemies won't take a vacation because the markets are down, and that it's not unimportant that he's ready to be commander in chief. He can remind voters that even in a recession, the president appoints federal judges – and that his judges won't legislate from the bench.
And he can point out that there's going to be a Democratic Congress. He can suggest that surely we'd prefer a president who would check that Congress where necessary and work with it where possible, instead of having an inexperienced Democrat joined at the hip with an all-too-experienced Democratic Congress, leading us, unfettered and unchecked, back to 1970s-style liberalism.
At tonight's debate, McCain might want to volunteer a mild mea culpa about the extent to which the presidential race has degenerated into a shouting match. Then he can pledge to the voters that the last three weeks will feature a contest worthy of this moment in our history.
He'd enjoy it. And he might even win it.