John McCain's War of Attrition

John McCain's War of Attrition

John McCain's War of Attrition

How you look at things.
Sept. 28 1999 3:30 AM

John McCain's War of Attrition

Monday afternoon, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared his candidacy for president. He did everything by the book: highlighted favorable issues, exploited his personal history, and portrayed his opponents' advantages as vices. But McCain also defied the political playbook by deprecating himself in a shrewd effort to pre-empt criticism and turn up the heat on his rivals. Here's a breakdown of his tactics.

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1.Focus on foreign policy. Each candidate has expertise in a particular terrain of issues. The advantage will go to the candidate on whose terrain the battle is fought. If the election is about cultural concerns, George W. Bush has the advantage. If it's about economic growth, Al Gore has the advantage. If it's about poverty, Bill Bradley has the advantage. McCain, thanks to his military career, owns the terrain of foreign policy. While Bradley can argue that poverty is the most morally pressing concern, Gore can argue that growth is the most fundamental, and Bush can argue that cultural decay is foremost in the minds of voters, McCain can argue that military issues are the most grave. "The most solemn responsibility given the president is the role of commander in chief," he declared Monday. Of the time McCain spent discussing issues, nearly half was devoted to the military and America's role in the world.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

2.Emphasize biography. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been difficult to get the public to focus on foreign policy. But McCain can frame the election to his advantage in another way. He can bypass the choice among issues by persuading voters to focus on the candidates' biographies instead of their platforms. Every candidate launches his campaign with a glossy account of his upbringing and career, but McCain's heroism in Vietnam makes his story a far easier sell than Bush's, Gore's, or Bradley's. McCain exploits this advantage by filling his speeches with the word "service." "Serving my country is an honor, indeed, the most honorable life an American can lead," he said Monday. "I have passed from a young man to an old one in the service of my country."

3.Moralize the issues. Once he has convinced voters of his superior character, McCain exports this advantage by describing every subject in moral terms. In his announcement address, as in previous speeches, he framed domestic issues in terms of "honor," "courage," "strength," "faith," "selfishness," "honesty," and "respect." He called trade protectionists "cowards," accused the government of swindling taxpayers, and denounced President Clinton for breaking his promise to protect Social Security. Two months ago, addressing the National Council of La Raza, McCain said of Hispanic voters, "Their support is my honor." Couching every issue in such language maximizes the leverage of McCain's heroism.

4. Stigmatizewealth. The elite pedigrees of Bush and Gore make them vulnerable to a populist underdog. Auditioning for this role, Pat Buchanan uses economic issues, Bradley uses Midwestern humility, and McCain uses the soldier's ethic of obedience, teamwork, and self-sacrifice. "I don't begin this mission with any sense of entitlement. America doesn't owe me anything," McCain proclaimed Monday. "I was born into America's service. ... I want to return our government back to whom it belongs--the people. So that Americans can believe once again that public service is a summons to duty and not a lifetime of privilege."

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5.Vilify partisanship. McCain, like Bradley, has generated significant interest among independent voters and needs their help in New Hampshire's open primary. Moreover, unlike Bradley, McCain has made numerous enemies in his own party by promoting legislation that would restrict campaign contributions and require tobacco companies to pay for health care and anti-smoking education. To convert this adversity into an advantage, McCain accuses his critics of subverting the national interest for the sake of "partisan ambitions." He scolds "Congress" as well as Clinton, "Republicans" as well as Democrats, and "conservatives" as well as liberals.

Conventional strategy dictates that having framed the election along these lines, McCain should emphasize his superiority in each respect. Instead, he proclaims his own inadequacy. McCain's favorite words are shame, blame, failure, and disgrace. In every account of his POW ordeal, he absurdly concludes that he "failed" to withstand the enemy's torture. In speeches, he accepts "blame" for everything Congress does wrong, says he "failed" to prevent it, and vows to "try harder" next time. He is "ashamed" of everything--political pork, unwise military procurements, high-dollar electioneering. "The people whom I serve believe that the means by which I came to office corrupt me," he declared three months ago. "And that shames me. That shames me. Their contempt is a stain upon my honor, and I cannot live with it." Pundits choked up at McCain's words. Since then, he has repeated them verbatim on at least five occasions. Shame has become his shtick.

This accomplishes two things. First, it pre-empts criticism from the media. It's no fun whipping McCain when he's already whipping himself. Second, it establishes a test no other candidate can survive. McCain is the only candidate with a biography of steel. When he calls himself weak and corrupt, nobody believes him. If Gore were to call himself weak and corrupt, his opponents would replay his confession as a campaign ad.

To beat Bush, McCain has stripped character down to experience. Bush speaks the language of character and has plenty of foreign policy counsel on which to rely. McCain wants to take those assets out of the game, reducing the comparison to what each man has done with his life. In military confrontations, McCain warned Monday, "there comes a time when our nation's leader can no longer rely on briefing books and talking points ... when the sum total of one's life becomes the foundation from which he or she makes the decisions that determine the future of our democracy. ... The president is a lonely man in a dark room when the casualty reports come in. I am not afraid of the burden. I know both the blessing and the price of freedom." With that, McCain began a refrain--"I am not afraid"--designed to shame his rivals.

McCain's ultimate weapon is cynicism. He plays it up because it endangers his opponents more than it endangers him. The central line of his speech proclaimed a "New Patriotic Challenge. It is a challenge to each of us to join in the fight against the pervasive cynicism that is debilitating our democracy." It corrodes every politician except John McCain. "We who are currently privileged to hold public office have ourselves to blame," he laments in his stump speech. "It is we who have squandered the public trust, we who have time and again placed our personal or partisan interest before the national interest, earning the public's contempt with our poll-driven policies, our phony posturing, the lies we call spin. ... We are all corrupted."

The first politician McCain wants to portray as corrupted is Bush. "At a time when Americans are growing increasingly cynical about public service and increasingly disillusioned about their political leaders," McCain charged Saturday, "I was disappointed to see my fellow Republicans' reaction to recent comments and writings by Pat Buchanan concerning our nation's role in defeating Nazi Germany. By continuing to appease Buchanan, several of our candidates appear to have put politics ahead of our party's principles. ... Like Gov. Bush, I want to see a united Republican Party. But no political campaign is worth sacrificing our principles."

So much for McCain's "war against cynicism." He hates cynicism like the Russians at Stalingrad hated the snow.