Rebuilding the McCain Brand
Six ways he can recapture his former glory.
PHOENIX—One major casualty of the 2008 race is the McCain brand, as a big chunk of his former fans have turned critical. The media, a group John McCain once called his "base," have fallen off the boat. Independents who admired his stances on immigration and Bush's tax cuts have drifted away. Veterans of the 2000 campaign have said they barely recognize the 2008 Republican nominee. Mark Salter, McCain's co-author and confidante, has said that Obama has "dinged up" the McCain brand. Well, now is the time to rebuild. McCain may have lost the election, but in the coming weeks and months, he'll have an opportunity to fix a damaged reputation. Here are a few things he can do: Remeet the press. It's conventional wisdom in McCainland that the media jilted their candidate this election. "I think people wanted to see McCain lose with honor," says Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman and blogger for McCain. "That's how they wanted it to play out, like a fucking episode of The West Wing." But after McCain's candor created some awkward moments, the campaign shuttered its doors and froze out the press—which only made the media pig pile grow. Whoever's to blame, McCain can make headway by resuming his old ways—giving interviews, reconnecting with alienated allies, and generally "going rogue," to use a current phrase.
Some aides doubt that will happen. "He's not gonna change anything to appease [the media]," says Goldfarb, who believes the media will revisit its coverage of the campaign on its own. "After some minimal self-reflection, they'll see they gave John McCain a really bad rap." But at the very least, McCain can make it clear there are no hard feelings. He offered a small olive branch Tuesday, when he came to the back of the "Straight Talk Air" to say goodbye. "We've had a great time. I wish you all every success and look forward to being with you in the future," he said.
Acknowledge campaign mistakes. A big part of the McCain "brand" was admitting when he screwed up. After his 2000 campaign ended, he apologized for his support for flying the Confederate flag above the South Carolina statehouse. McCain would do well to acknowledge his missteps this time around. Chief among them may be picking Sarah Palin as his running mate—which many former allies called the last straw. Sure, McCain deserves credit for refusing to discuss the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or to demonize Obama because of his heritage or use his middle name (especially in defiance of staffers' urging). And this doesn't mean pointing the finger—postmortem recriminations always look bad (Exhibit A). But a full rehabilitation requires that McCain confront some of his campaign's less proud decisions.
Piss off Republicans. "Maverick" has always been part truth, part myth. But what wins McCain points among Americans may not win him friends among congressional Republicans, particularly when it comes to campaign-finance reform, immigration, and climate change. Now that McCain doesn't have to worry about "winning the base," he can return to emphasizing his less orthodox stances. There's a risk in being pegged as a flip-flop-flipper—I was for pathways to citizenship before I was against them before I was for them!—but unless he's planning a 2012 run, who cares?
That said, McCain's apostasy was appealing largely because Republicans were in charge. With Democrats in power, it may be harder to appear mavericky. If McCain joins Democrats on certain issues, it could look more opportunistic than brave, since they're now the majority.
Be funny. One of McCain's best selling points has always been his sense of humor—it's a big reason people (voters, reporters, other politicians) are attracted to him, and it will remain so. But it doesn't hurt to remind people. What can he do to get back his mojo? Go on Letterman and joke about the time he stiffed him. Poke fun at the new guy in the White House. Laugh at his own worst moments. His latest appearance on Saturday Night Live was a good start (and at least one observer saw it as an early indicator that he knew he wasn't going to win). But McCain should take every chance he can get—including his concession speech—to show he's not bitter.
Reach out to Obama. McCain's behavior—not to mention aides who know him—suggest he doesn't have a sparkling opinion of Obama. But from now on, grace is the word. Don't just stick to the concession-speech standards like congratulations. Offer to help Democrats reach across the aisle. Arrange meetings. Negotiate compromises. Suppress the urge to point out that you were the first to propose collaboration—(cough) town halls (cough). Both candidates have stood for cooperation—act on it.
Write a campaign memoir. McCain is always at his best when telling stories. So tell the story of the campaign. No candidate has ever done it—at least not as McCain would. McCain's books have always been windows into his mind (with Salter acting as a pane). He could win a lot of respect by penning an unvarnished account of the campaign, from his own perspective. Suggested title: Travels With Lindsey.
Maybe it's impossible for McCain to reclaim his brand. You can't just rewind the clock. Plus, many will say "the old McCain" would have won the race. But 2008 didn't get nearly as nasty as it could have, and the damage to McCain's brand, while significant, is not irreversible. As spokesman Tucker Bounds says, "John McCain is the brand." And he's not going anywhere.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of John McCain by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.