If the campaign consultants have their way, 90 days from now roughly half of the electorate will think that John McCain is an angry, nasty and bitter old man. The other half will think that Barack Obama is an egotistical, feckless and immature dilettante.
There are still two conventions, three presidential debates, dozens of policy pronouncements and thousands of photo opportunities before Election Day; but those two caricatures that are on the verge of being imprinted in the public consciousness will frame the campaign conversation from this point forward.
It’s too convenient and too condescending to dismiss the voters as fascinated by personality and uninterested in policy. The American public understands that there are clear-cut distinctions between McCain and Obama on issues like national security, taxes, energy and health care, to name a few. But voters also view the candidates ability to deal with those issues through a prism of trust, which develops through an emotional connection between political leaders and their followers. By turning their opponents into cartoon characters, both campaigns are trying to make it difficult for their foes to establish that trust.
In a less confrontational universe, McCain and Obama could have simply continued to emphasize their respective messages of “experience” and “change.” But pointing out your attributes only goes so far: fhe flip side is talking about where the other guy falls short. The campaigns approaches to this challenge were on full display recently, when the McCain campaign began running an ad that identified Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” and Obama put up a response that criticized McCain for practicing “the politics of the past.”
Obama linked the Arizona senator to President Bush, and McCain compared his opponent to Paris Hilton. Neither association is going to eclipse national security, taxes or energy as the deciding force in the campaign for most voters, but that exchange illustrates what the home stretch of this campaign is going to sound like.
Neither candidate is particularly well-suited to this type of politics. Both have earned reputations as representing something different and better than the conventional politicians who populate the landscape. Both diminish themselves and their brands by engaging in this type of conversation. Voters see a discussion between the candidates of policy differences as a legitimate way of providing useful information. But name-calling is another matter, especially for two politicians whove built their careers on the idea of rising above politics as usual.
Both candidates have learned other lessons from past campaigns as well. McCain and his advisers watched carefully as Hillary Clinton resurrected her campaign last spring when she took the gloves off and began to confront Obama more aggressively. The Illinois senator is at his best from the mountaintop, and while Clinton’s change of course came too late to bring her the nomination, she demonstrated that the best way to deal with Obama is to force him back to earth. For their part, Obama and his team know that McCain can be goaded into lashing out when he feels hes being unjustly criticized.
For better or worse, assume that the competing stick figures of Angry Old Geezer and Callow Young Egotist remain in place through the election and beyond. After all, for most Americans, Al Gore will always be boring, Ross Perot is still crazy, and Dan Quayle will forever be learning how to spell. So neither McCain nor Obama is going to shed these images anytime soon: The question is how to best deal with them.
The advantage for Obama is that his caricature may not be particularly flattering, but at least it’s somewhat aspirational. Young people get older, naive people become more experienced and presumptiveness sometimes leads to achievement and success. McCain’s new mean-guy persona has the potential to be more damaging because it undermines the reputation hes developed over the course of his career. His most effective approach as a critic has always been when he frames his disapproval in the context of sorrow rather than anger: the public display of annoyance or irritation is always less appealing than disappointment or regret.
That said, it’s also less complicated for McCain to move beyond charges of nastiness than it will be for Obama to get past the appearance of arrogance. While shrillness and negativity may seem like necessary components of a political campaign, they’re not requirements. But it’s pretty difficult to run for president without telling people why you’re good enough for the job. In other words, it would be a lot easier for McCain to start saying nice things about Obama than it is for Obama to stop saying nice things about himself.
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Aug. 4, 2008