Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on how McCain is failing. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
This is a Democratic year, so an argument can be made that because John McCain is fortune’s knave, he just has no chance this year.
But he’s definitely not helping his cause. This is a time when Americans are looking at the plunging Dow Jones, their pocket books and their 401k accounts, and the McCain campaign is talking about Bill Ayers? This is suicide for the campaign, and when all is said and done, the Republican party will have to do some soul-searching about the role and influence of the culturally and obstinately conservative base in the party who have slung a millstone (together with Sarah Palin) around McCain’s neck.
Playing to the base worked in 2004 when the culture wars were still alive. Ronald Inglehart showed us a long time ago that post-materialism is a privilege only for those who are not preoccupied with pocket book matters. But this is no time to worry about the rights of the unborn or the rights of the married – Sarah Palin’s new tack. This is not even time to worry about Obama’s alleged ties to a terrorist (amazingly, because four years ago this would have had maximal traction on an already swiftboated candidate).
Even though the country has unequivocably moved on, at every point in this campaign, McCain has played to the culturally conservative base of the Republican party as if we were still in 2000 or 2004 – his performance at the Saddleback Faith Forum, his choice of Sarah Palin, his attacks on Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers reveal a candidate petulantly locked in a different era. It is as if he has taken a principled stand not to run ahead of the political curve. This is foolish nostalgia, evidence of an ailing ideological empire refusing to innovate.
Why is McCain turning to the old tricks even as they are no longer effective? Perhaps there is a general (and historically repetitive) puzzle here to unpack: why do politicians turn to bankrupt strategies – there you go again, as Reagan so powerfully put it to Jimmy Carter in 1980 – even when these tactics have aged well past their prime? Because for better or for worse, every democratic politician is bound to an ideology that was once powerful and dominant enough to carry him/her into power but bound also to the fact that even the greatest ideology, like the greatest empire, must obey the law of gravity. Crying wolf usually works particularly well the first couple of times – indeed it creates a habit because it is initially rewarded with positive feedback. So politicians (and their political descendants) will keep crying wolf again and again, right up to and past the point of diminishing returns. A new wolf cry heralds a new era – change, we usually call it – and the cycle starts all over again. There is one constant however: what goes up must come down.
John McCain will do well to remember that the only reason why he emerged victorious in his party’s primary contests was because his party calculated that the maverick from the senate was best positioned to cry a different tune in this election other than wolf. Only a maverick can postpone the law of gravity, but maverick McCain has not been. Paradoxically, just when the Republican party really needed a maverick, John McCain is faithfully towing the party line. All he has done so far has been to chant the same tune – we want victory in Iraq, no negotiation with terrorists, we want to lower taxes, we want to control spending, Obama is “that one.” There you go again, Senator McCain. Stop crying wolf or you could be crying on November 4.