Why McCain Lost

Eerie Echoes of Bush -- i.e., George H.W. Bush

By Published on .

OK, put aside the war. Put aside the economy. Put aside the public's dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush. Obviously, the odds were against John McCain in this race. But he certainly didn't help himself with his campaign strategy -- or, shall I say, 37 campaign strategies, replete with inconsistent and sometimes contradictory messages.

Maverick/stay in Iraq. "Straight Talk Express" media darling/media are the enemy. Budget hawk/universal mortgage relief. Outsider/tested insider. Country First/Sarah Palin-esque political expediency.

What's so striking about this is that we've seen it before, in 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran for re-election against a young Democrat named Bill Clinton. Here's a column I wrote back then. Tell me if it doesn't sound awfully familiar:

Watching the Bush-Quayle advertising unfold is like watching somebody else try to thread a needle. Even if you have no interest in the sewing, you want to grab the thing and do it yourself -- and for students of marketing, the November Co. has provided an August-through-October campaign of precisely that frustration.

It began three months ago with The New George Bush, the incumbent of change, promising oddly not to stay the course. OK, fair enough. With H. Mario Perot at that stage out of the running, the president had to woo disaffected independents, presumably later to bask in his own brand benefits.

With three weeks to Election Day, however, no such basking has occurred. Nor any coherent strategy whatsoever. Instead, there have been four spots tweaking Bill Clinton and his alleged propensity for taxing the working class, and a spot featuring Bush's vision for the next four years. In it, the chief executive who has lagged in the polls because America thinks he's detached from recession heartbreak attempts to display the presidential emotion, conviction and determination we demand.

Sure enough, after 60 feverishly animated seconds, Bush no longer seems detached. He seems unhinged.

"We must be a military superpower, an economic superpower and an export superpower!" the president bellows, swinging from one extreme to another. Suddenly the somnambulant Mr. Bush transforms into a neck-vein-throbbing double of the Big Brother figure in Apple Computers' famous "1984" spot -- complete with the computer transcription of his frenzied words.

And for what? To improve his image with the voters? Four years after "Read my lips!," it is far too late for that. Rather than trying futilely to disabuse voters of Bush's negatives, the campaign must remind us endlessly of his positives: that it was Bush who hammered the final nail in the coffin of imperial communism, who cultivated the first serious Middle East peace talks in 15 years and who wove together an unlikely coalition that won a lightning war in the gulf.

That is a selling proposition. Yet, so far: not one image of the crumbled Berlin Wall, the hammer-and-sickle being lowered in the Kremlin or the liberation of Kuwait. Clinton's watchword is "The economy, stupid." Bush's should be "No missiles trained on us, stupid."

The polls, of course, say Americans are indifferent to the New World Order, that they care only about the economy. Baloney. If marketers know anything about advertising, it is its power to unlock emotions. You can't poll people's guts. No research can measure the poignancy, the visceral clout of those Berlin Wall pictures or American tanks thundering triumphantly into Kuwait City.

The closest approximation yet of a campaign theme is the emerging question of trust. One Bush spot obscures the faces of Candidate A and Candidate B, who both turn out to be Bill Clinton in full waffle (as we hear Clinton utter what may be his read-my-lips epitaph: "There is a simple explanation for why this happened").

But voters thus far have seemed to grant Clinton his much-publicized peccadilloes, and in wielding the double-edged sword of trust, the president who misled us about taxes squanders a chance to exploit a bigger Clinton soft spot: the sobering prospect of any Democratic president in cahoots with the "tax-and-spend" Congress. Using images of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter et al., Bush could terrify us about a Democratic War on Prosperity.

Instead, we see the sorry sight of a president of the United States relentlessly needling his opponent, and therein the problem. He's got the needle, but he's lost the thread .
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